Assembly Member Epstein and Senator Harckham Unveil Bill to Protect New Yorkers’ Right to a Nonreligious Treatment Program Option

New York As National Recovery Month draws to a close, Assembly Member Harvey Epstein (D, WF-Manhattan) and Senator Pete Harckham (D, WF-Hudson Valley) are introducing legislation (A.8163/ S.7313) to require courts that mandate substance abuse treatment programs to inform defendants of their right to a nonreligious option.

The bill, which comes as the National Institute on Drug Abuse has observed a marked increase in substance use disorders and overdoses, amends the criminal procedure law and penal law to provide for a process in which courts would inquire on the record whether a defendant or probationer mandated to complete a substance abuse treatment program has an objection to any religious element of that program. If the defendant objects to a religious element of the program, the court must identify an alternative equivalent program to which the defendant has no religious objection.

The purpose of the legislation is to ensure that New Yorkers in recovery are matched with treatment programs and support meetings that align with their personal beliefs. The bill also seeks to avoid costly lawsuits brought against the state by defendants seeking to enforce their constitutional rights. Courts have repeatedly upheld defendants’ rights to participate in nonreligious treatment programs, if the defendants object to religious elements of a program assigned by the court.

A coalition that includes treatment centers, secular organizations, and the New York Civil Liberties Union are supporting this legislation. The legislation has been referred to the Assembly’s Committee on Codes and the Senate Rules Committee, and will be eligible to be considered by the Legislature in January 2022, when lawmakers are set to return to Albany.

“Our legislation protects New Yorkers First Amendment rights and sets them on a path to recovery that aligns with their beliefs. It’s important now more than ever, as we have seen substance use disorders skyrocket during the pandemic. We have a diverse group of organizations behind us, and I look forward to working with them to pass this commonsense bill,” said Assemblymember Harvey Epstein.

“Instead of making circumstances more onerous or problematic for New Yorkers who want to enter treatment programs for Substance Use Disorder, we need to focus on simple ways to accommodate them,” said Harckham, chair of the Senate Committee on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. “This legislation allows courts to consider preferred program options without spiritual components when ordering individuals to treatment, which seems in line with our basic constitutional rights. The key here is to get people into treatment programs on a positive note at the onset.”

“The addiction crisis and deadly drug overdose epidemic – which took a shocking record of 93,000 American lives in 2020 – have sharply increased the need for numerous recovery resources to help everyone affected,” said Bill Greer, President of SMART Recovery USA. “People in the criminal justice system must have access to secular recovery support, as required by constitutional case law.”

"We strongly support Assembly Member Epstein and his introduction of this important bill that affirmatively protects the first amendment rights of New Yorkers," said Leonard Presberg, Founder and President of the Association of Secular Elected Officials. "The nonreligious cannot be forced into religious treatment programs by the state."

“Friends of Recovery–New York (FOR-NY) supports multiple pathways to recovery. This bill provides that individuals mandated to treatment have some choice in the type of treatment they receive and are provided with religious as well as non-religious treatment options. FOR-NY supports this legislation as it aims to make recovery more inclusive and attainable,” said Dr. Angelia Smith-Wilson, Executive Director of Friends of Recovery–New York.

"This bill acknowledges what the courts have acknowledged for years: the right to recovery care that best aligns with one's needs,” said Sunil Panikkath, President of the American Humanist Association. “We are proud to support a bill that empowers humanists, nontheists, the nonreligious, religious minorities, and others desiring secular treatment with options to know and act on their rights, without the burden of litigation. As a humanist New Yorker, I hope legislators in other states follow this lead.”

“New Yorkers receiving court-ordered substance abuse treatment are especially vulnerable, and their religious freedom must remain protected,” said Alison Gill, Vice President for Legal and Policy at American Atheists. “Only an individual, not a court, can decide whether a religious or nonreligious treatment program is best for them. Thankfully, this vital legislation introduced by Assemblymember Harvey Epstein and Senator Pete Harckham will protect individuals receiving needed substance abuse treatment from religious coercion.”

“Women for Sobriety knows how important choice in recovery is," said Adrienne Miller, President and CEO of Women for Sobriety, Inc. "We fully support the rights of people involved in the judicial system to engage in treatment programs that are consistent with their beliefs.”

"We enthusiastically support this bill," said Scott MacConomy, Director of Policy and Government Affairs at the Secular Coalition for America. "No one should have to participate in a faith-based treatment program when a different program more in line with his or her beliefs is available. This is not just in accordance with the court's appropriate role in this situation, it often means a defendant will participate in a program in which he or she is more likely to be successful."

“New Yorkers with substance use disorders deserve dignity and respect, especially when they are caught up in a penal system that too often dismisses their basic human needs and fundamental rights,” said Erika Lorshbough, deputy policy director for the New York Civil Liberties Union. “This bill will make clear that one should never have to endure proselytization in order to access court-ordered treatment and services, or be forced to choose between their own conscience and prolonged incarceration.”

"Individuals in recovery don't need courts telling them what to do, they need help finding the options that are best for them. We are all different and may find some groups or programs more helpful than others," said Gerardo Matamoros, interim executive director at SMART Recovery NYC. "This bill gets us closer to a solution that centers the needs of the individual."