British Columbia

Atheist nurse's fight against mandatory AA will go before B.C. Human Rights Tribunal

A B.C. nurse who lost his job when he refused to attend a 12-step program for addiction will get a chance to argue he was discriminated against as an atheist.

Tribunal denies application to dismiss Byron Wood's complaint against Vancouver Coastal Health

Wood says he's 'really happy' about his settlement with Vancouver Coastal Health. (Submitted by Byron Wood)

A B.C. nurse who lost his job when he refused to attend a 12-step program for addiction will get a chance to argue he was discriminated against as an atheist.

Byron Wood contends Alcoholics Anonymous's emphasis on placing your life in the hands of a higher power simply won't work for someone who doesn't hold any religious beliefs.

That's an argument worth considering, according to the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal. On Wednesday, it denied Vancouver Coastal Health's application to dismiss Wood's complaint alleging discrimination on the basis of religion. 

"The tribunal has not [previously] considered whether the 12‐step program utilized by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous … may discriminate against persons with substance abuse disorders who are atheists," tribunal member Walter Rilkoff wrote in Wednesday's decision.

"In my view, there is a public interest in addressing that issue."

If Wood was indeed a victim of discrimination, the tribunal will also have to decide what steps his employer would need to take to accommodate his lack of belief in a higher power.

In the same decision, the tribunal dismissed Wood's complaint that he was discriminated against on the basis of a mental disability — specifically, addiction — as well as parallel complaints against the B.C. Nurses' Union.

In an email to CBC, Wood expressed hope about the prospect of arguing his case before the tribunal.

"At a hearing, I will have the opportunity to introduce expert testimony from addiction experts," he wrote.

"I'm hoping that eventually the courts will favour the evidence of experts who have a current, science-based understanding of substance use disorders. Only then will employers be forced to change their policies."

A Vancouver Coastal Health spokesperson said the health authority is reviewing the decision, but he could not provide further comment on Wood's case while it is before the tribunal. 

No alternatives

Wood was diagnosed with substance use disorder after a psychotic break landed him in the psychiatric ward at Vancouver General Hospital in the fall of 2013. His professional college was informed, along with his union and Vancouver Coastal Health, his employer at the time. 

He was referred to a doctor specializing in addictions, who created a plan that Wood would need to follow if he wanted to return to work. AA was a mandatory component of that plan.

Wood lost his job as a nurse after refusing to continue attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC)

Wood suggested alternatives to the 12-step program, including secular support groups and counselling, but his doctor rejected them, according to emails provided to CBC. 

He also asked for a referral to a new doctor, but his union informed him that it only uses addictions specialists who follow the 12-step model, the emails show.

The AA meetings didn't help, says Wood, who lost his job as well as his registration as a nurse when he stopped going.

Researchers who've spoken to CBC News about Wood's story say it's not unusual in Canada, and nurses are regularly required to attend 12-step programs in the interest of protecting public safety.

Medical opinions can be discriminatory

In its submissions to the tribunal, Vancouver Coastal Health argued the treatment plan designed for Wood was reasonable and supported by medical experts. 

But Rilkoff said expert opinions weren't enough.

"Relying on medical opinions is not a sufficient defence if the medical recommendations are themselves discriminatory ... [Vancouver Coastal Health] cannot avoid liability if it relies on discriminatory advice," the decision says.

The 12 steps require members to "turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him," admit their faults and make amends with those they've hurt.

Many people who have recovered from addiction say AA was instrumental in their success.

But scientists who study addiction have long questioned the overall effectiveness of AA. In recent decades, numerous evidence-based pharmaceutical treatments have been developed for addiction, along with non-religious programs like SMART Recovery and LifeRing Secular Recovery.

For his part, Wood says he's had success using a drug called naltrexone, which blocks the intoxicating effects opiates and reduces the urge to drink alcohol. It's an option he says he wasn't offered while he was still employed as a nurse.


Bethany Lindsay


Bethany Lindsay is a Vancouver-based journalist for CBC News. Questions or news tips? Get in touch at or on Twitter through @bethanylindsay.