Lawsuit: United Airlines Forced Buddhist Pilot To Attend Alcoholics Anonymous Meetings

Filed Under: United

This isn’t the first lawsuit we’ve seen in the US regarding airline pilots and alcohol, but it is one of the more unusual ones.

Lawsuit over United Airlines’ Alcoholics Anonymous treatment

As noted by Paddle Your Own Kanoo, United Airlines is facing a lawsuit over a pilot being forced to attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. The incident involves David Disbrow, a Newark-based senior United Airlines captain who has been at the airline for over 30 years.

In 2017 he was diagnosed with having a substance abuse problem. He entered an alcohol treatment program in 2018, as his license was suspended by the FAA, pending successful completion of treatment.

He entered an Alcoholics Anonymous treatment intended specificallyfor pilots. Required treatments were held in churches and began with prayers. Furthermore, there were references to a Christian God, and also to a “greater power.”

This wasn’t in line with Disbrow’s beliefs as a Buddhist. He did some research and found Refuge Recovery, which is described as “a non-profit organization that believes Buddhist principles and practices create a strong foundation to recover from addiction.”

He asked to be able to use this for his treatment instead. According to the lawsuit, the airline rejected his request.

As a result, Disbrow filed a complaint with the Equal Opportunities Commission, which sided with the pilot and agreed that this program was discriminatory in nature. The organization filed a lawsuit on his behalf, requesting that he be able to get his job back by attending Refuge Recovery instead of Alcoholics Anonymous.

My questions about this situation

Some people will no doubt say “well, the US is ridiculous, and people sue over everything.” While that’s often true, I do think there’s merit to this in general:

  • Ultimately treatment is intended to help someone with their problems, and if it’s going to work long-term, someone needs to genuinely buy into the message
  • While AA isn’t explicitly Christian, it is based on the belief that there is a God, and that you need to put your life in his hands
  • How is someone supposed to sincerely benefit from treatment and heal if they don’t believe one of the core pillars on which the treatment is based?
  • From United’s perspective, I can understand how the airline presumably has to “certify” specific programs as satisfying the requirement for treatment, and that this presumably wouldn’t have been an instant process for Refuge Recovery; still, it seems there should be an option for treatment for those who don’t believe in a God

Bottom line

A lawsuit was filed over a United Airlines pilot who had to attend an alcohol treatment program. However, as a Buddhist he wasn’t happy with the frequent mentions of the Christian religion.

If a treatment option is intended to give someone the strength to overcome a serious problem, I can see how exclusive references to other religions — especially ones with beliefs very different than your own — may not be well received.

I’m curious to see what comes of this case…

  1. Look into the origins of AA. It is pretty explicitly Protestant in nature and was designed without the input of mental health professionals or other qualified medical personnel. Some programs are not run in a religious manner but others are.

    AA is not very effective to start. Alcohol abuse is a disease and treating it with essentially religious based treatment options is really a North American concept. If you don’t believe in the religious aspects the treatment becomes even less effective.

  2. I am a Christian and also am in the “Americans sue for everything” brigade. However I stand in complete agreement with the pilot! Not only is it absurd that there is church involvement in AA (never knew this), but surely in this day and age one should have a choice regarding these services, seeing as they appear to be religion based. There must be better programs out there now that can engage the “spiritual” side without becoming denominational.
    Regardless, this pilot had a full right to sue and I’m happy for him that he won.

  3. Remember, in many parts of the country, something generically Christian is not viewed as religious by local citizens because it encompasses multiple strains of Christianity.

  4. Yeah, I attended an AA meeting years ago, to observe as part of a high school course project. They are really quite overtly religious. I went to Catholic high school, and it was actually quite surprising, borderline shocking to me.

  5. As a recovered alcoholic/addict, I disagree with this guy above me and the Buddhist pilot. I lived my life as an atheist believe that anyone that worshipped God was a sucker. I outright denied the presence of any spiritual being/religious practices. Eventually when confronted with the imminent alcoholics death at a young age, my stepped into the world of agnosticism – I didn’t deny a spiritual entity, but I certainly didn’t believe. Regardless of what the meetings claim, I refer to the text of the big book of alcoholics anonymous. The text explicitly tells me that a WILLINGNESS to believe in a Power beyond myself is all that is required. For someone to take that and say a Christian God was pushed on them is a far stretch. Of course a majority of AA meetings run their own course and do not utilize the literature as their guide, so you will certainly here a wide range of opinions that are baseless and contrary to the foundation of the program. AA has become a game of telephone like you play as a young kid. Though it may be true to hear crazy things at the meetings, the book at no point specifies what version of God or Higher Power you must believe in – The only condition is that is beyond that of human.

  6. Isn’t the first AA stage to “acknowledge there’s a higher power” or some such?Seems explicitly religious to me.

    A highly litigious culture is one that eventually consumes itself, but this law suit seems like one of the more reasonable ones to me.

  7. Yes, AA is definitely Christian (meetings begin with a decidedly Christian prayer and require their members’ acceptance of a monotheistic worldview). It is also a peer support group — and these are important but should not take the place of care overseen by a licensed behavioral health provider. There really is no excuse for requiring, specifically, AA as a “treatment” for pilots suffering from alcohol use disorder. I’m honestly surprised that UA’s lawyers actually thought this was worth fighting.

    @Dan – agreed. Sadly there is still a strong cultural bias towards seeing mental and behavioral health issues as a spiritual failing instead of a medical problem.

  8. I am in AA and there are many different styles of meetings, but they else close with the serenity “prayer,” which opens with “God, grant me…”

    There are other options for those interested in support group recovery including the aformentioned Refuge Recovery (which isn’t very well known and even here in my major metropolitan there is only one and its not even in DC) as well as SMART, which is not religious at all. There are probably others that I am not aware of.

    Its ridiculous that UA wouldn’t allow him to utilize other options.

  9. AA is not treatment, it is a peer support group. AA is frequently misinterpreted as treatment, and many professional groups require individuals to attend AA as part of a return to work plan, and that is downright wrong. You should not have to radically change your beliefs or lie about your beliefs, that can just make your substance use worse.

    You can gain just as much peer and recovery support, if not more, from attending a peer support group that is in alignment with your beliefs, rather than a one size fits all, 12 step approach.

    Plenty have been helped by AA, but plenty have not found that same help. The best treatment is the one that works, not a rigid prescription.

  10. Buddhism is absolutely a religion and is followed by hundreds of millions of people worldwide, including many in the U.S. Please don’t wrongly suggest that it is not a religion, which is very offensive and insulting. Atheists and non-Buddhist prefer to mislabel Buddhism as a philosophy instead. There are Buddhist temples everywhere now, including in the USA for devotees. UA deserves to be held liable for this religious discrimination against this pilot. Shame on UA still not being culturally responsive.

  11. @ Ben — And before I am attacked for my comment, let me explain. The guy should be thankful he still has a job to begin with. If the pilot’s contract he works under allows AA versus just flat-out firing him for being a danger to the flying public, he should be grateful and comply. Above all, people need to take responsibility for their own behavior. If he doesn’t stop drinking, it will kill him. That should be enough to make any sane person quit.

  12. It’s baffling that the in-house medical experts at UA wouldn’t recommend requiring science-based treatment FIRST, and support programs as an adjunct, and that the lawyers wouldn’t agree. Dan and Andy are correct: Substance abuse disorders are diseases of mental health. Cognitive-behavioral therapy paired with medication are proven effective front-line treatments. I realize pilots can’t fly while taking certain psych meds, which is why they need to be granted medical leave for as long as needed to get well.

    Flight deck ops seems like a very stressful, socially alienating profession, and pilots need confidence that they can come forward and actually be cared for in a medically appropriate manner. Compelling them to a specific program that’s incomplete and based in religion and not science is totally inappropriate and regressive, even if it does help some people.

  13. If the pilot is demanding a lot if money then it could he “sue for everything”. If injunctive relief, then maybe not.

  14. Well Gene has spoke. So yeah the pilot should be fired.

    But Gene isn’t in charge and the pilot shouldn’t be fired. If he refused to join a programme then yes he should but he hasn’t refused a programme.

    There are plenty of substance abuse programs available and a company should be prepared to support those an employee chooses to use.

    UA does not have to certify each and every programme – it can and should rely on other organisations to do the certification such as professional psychiatric and counselling regulatory bodies or those approved by state and federal health agencies.

    If UA has a health insurer provider for its workers then surely they will also know of suitable programmes. An employee should be able to choose which programs of this nature to use and not just be forced to take the one easiest for the employer to organise.

  15. @Gene

    I will not attack you, as I agree with you.

    Also, there’s a phrase in the story many people seem to have missed…”he entered as AA treatment intended specifically for pilots”. To me, it indicates the treatment program may be FAA approved, or part the union contract, etc. Therefore, even though the pilot found an alternative program, the program may not “qualify”.

  16. The company tried to help an employee overcome an addiction and keep his job, and end up being sued. Lesson learned, next time just fire the employee and avoid the backlash. These are the times we live in.

  17. Please attack me, I agree with Gene.
    There is a high incidence of failure with alcoholic treatments, I would not hire a pilot with any history. You could test, retest and yet there is alcohol on the flight.
    I am involved in studying programs and agencies that provide services to autistic individuals. Every agency and every program looks good on paper, some are just paper with no or incompetent staff. I assume this is true throughout life. If there is a program designed for Pilots and possibly certified, that is my only choice.

  18. While I do agree that there should be some type of agnostic treatment available to satisfy the requirements, I am 100% certain that no one at United Airlines has a specific agenda to promote one religion over another or frankly even cares a little bit about what specific program a pilot goes through. All they care about is whether the program meets the FAA medical requirement or not. I’m pretty sure that this was as simple as:

    “Hey, this pilot wants to go through this other program.”
    “Does it meet the FAA requirement?”
    “Tell him he’s got to do the other one.”

    While there should be other programs available for non-Christians, this isn’t really United’s fault.

  19. FWIW: the NYS Court of Appeals (the highest court in NY) has consistently ruled that AA is not state-sponsored religion for the purposes of requiring inmate and parolee attendance at AA as a condition of privileges. Coercion is one of the prongs of the tripartite religious freedom test and mere exposure is not sufficient because the purpose of the program is not proselytizing. If the State of New York is free to require this, it is difficult to see how a public company is not without overturning decades of precedent.

  20. I’m all about second chances but when it comes to this, I don’t want someone with a substance abuse problem as my pilot. It should be zero tolerance when it pertains to jobs that involves life or death.

    That being said, I think it’s counter-productive to send someone to a treatment program that he/she does not share the same values and principles. They be fighting their addiction and the beliefs of others. United should set this pilot up for successful recovery.

  21. I have an ardently Protestant mother and Buddhist father and I’m married to a Buddhist as well. Faith seems to be lacking these days. To have a belief or to feel at comfort about the ways of life is a personal choice, and alcoholism can be treated without faith ever being mentioned.

    The pilot would clearly be right in Canada. The Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms requires equal treatment of people of all faiths or no faith at all. Someone else can’t dictate their religious beliefs at your job period.

  22. @Richard:
    you are mixing two things. The NYS Court of Appeals ruled that AA does not cross the First Amendment. This case is about discrimination. Those are two different things, crucially different.

    How come nobody has noticed that EEOC has ruled for the pilot?

    you might be right that every such pilot should be fired. I might agree, but the situation is different. Some pilots, those that are willing to deal with the religious flavor of AA, are allowed to fly while others not.

  23. What is the evidence base that attending a cult meeting is an effective treatment for addiction?

    I thought we’ve moved beyond the days of pitchforks, animal sacrifice and burning at the stake.

    Pilot’s argument is valid.

  24. So, is he alleging that the approved AA treatment is not effective because he is Buddhist?

    Also, for those who complain about our right to sue, first off not every lawsuit is successful. First you have to find an attorney that will take the case, then that attorney has to convince a judge not to throw out the case, and then you have to prevail based on the facts and application of law to these facts. We are a nation of laws afterall, and if you don’t like it, don’t come and visit or you can move to a nation with no laws!

  25. In my view, the real issue is that an employee was coerced into attending a meeting where he will be instructed to submit to a “higher power” at all. Whatever the semantics of how AA dances around it are, requiring any employee to accept religion should be a nonstarter. Especially considering there are nonreligious alternatives to AA readily available!

  26. Long time lurker first time poster.
    I am an AME, specifically a HIMS AME

    The FAA mandate any airman with an SUD go via the HIMS pathway. There are no exceptions. One of the (many) requirements is ’90 in 90′. This means 90 meetings (AA) in the first 90 days on entering the program. There is an ongoing requirement to attend meetings. Lots of info on the program is available online.

    I cant comment on the legalities of it but I know I cant certify if an Airman doesn’t tick every box that I have to tick.

    One of the issues these folk have is that they have to attend meetings even when on layovers. This means finding an AA chapter in any airport they may find themselves in. AA is like the US dollar, easy to find. Finding any other support group in CPT or AKL or NRT may be trickier..

  27. A lot of people are ignoring that the program the airline referred the pilot to was specifically intended for pilots. If his preferred alternative did not address this very important component then I’m not surprised he was told it was not acceptable. I see a legitimate defense here for the airline. The programs were not comparable at all. If he had found a Buddhist program specifically for pilots then he’d have a much stronger case.

  28. Why are we debating whether Alcoholics Anonymous requires belief in “A higher power” or in “god”? Both are singular! In fact there are 330 million gods in Hinduism, which is clearly much more logical and gives people more choice. There is no proof that there is a single god, that is just an extremist ideology.

  29. It is of course fine to have an opinion on what religious freedom should mean in the United States, but opinions are not the same as practice. In the United States, you have freedom OF religion, not freedom FROM religion.

    On its face, AA is not there to convert a person of one faith to Christianity. It is a twelve-step addiction recovery program with mediocre results–but most other addiction recovery programs demonstrate mediocre long-term results with much higher costs to participants. United Airlines is not telling this pilot of one faith that he must practice a different faith. AA does not require Baptism or Communion or Confirmation. The very Catholic sacrement of Confession is not to God through a priest in AA, but rather to yourself and the people you have harmed through your addiction. This is not coercive religion. If you say otherwise, you are using coercive in a way that is very different from how courts in the United States have interpreted that term.

    Depending on the meeting, the interpretation of the “higher power” can vary from the Christian “God” to “The Force” to simply the incomplete knowledge of the sum total of physical and chemical forces in the world that direct our lives outside our control. There are plenty of atheists in AA who choose to interpret the Serenity Prayer in a perfectly healthy and spiritually fulfilling way that does not invalidate their core beliefs. Whatever works.

  30. Would the FAA have reinstated his license for completing any course? If not then it doesn’t even matter what the employer allowed.

  31. It’s your basic 12 step that talks of a higher power. Some groups say the Lord’s Prayer. He could be silent during that

    He should be extremely grateful for getting a second chance.

    I wouldn’t rock the boat if I were him.

  32. So what if he was exposed to a group that espouses a belief in a “higher power”? Can’t you just ignore that bit and get something out of the treatment? Nowadays anybody exposed to anything they disagree with cries victimhood, and either sues or riots.

  33. I attended Al-Anon. Also, I attended one open AA meeting out of curiosity (some meetings are open to non-AA folks). I am not religious and never felt pressure to believe in anything. It was explained that the higher power could be anything: animal, vegetable, mineral, or whatever. The point was to admit powerlessness and stop fighting head on. You can read the Big Book or not .. no one forces it.
    There is a lot of stigma and denial with addiction. To be in a safe place where I could talk without being judged was a huge relief. I never felt pressure to talk. I sat without saying anything for several meetings. When I did start talking, I initially said very little, but to talk at all was liberating.
    This is only my experience with one Al-Anon group over a year or so, plus attending one AA meeting as an observer.
    Whether the program is effective or not depends on the individual. I know a couple of alcoholics who benefitted greatly … haven’t relapsed in 30+ years. (I didn’t even know they were alcoholics until they told me after I started going to Al-Anon.) I realize they were lucky, but the program should neither be treated as the answer or a failure. It’s one tool that works for some people.

  34. Buddhists believe in a higher power. I don’t see the problem here if it part of employer policy. Private company. Kind of like them mandating masks on flights.

  35. I absolutely love how this blog has turned into a gossip column. And before anyone asks, no I’m not being cheeky. This is one of the first things I read in the morning!

  36. I’ve got an idea. How about have a “real treatment program” rather than linking it with religion in any way. Many people just go to AA because of their requirements or to show that they “attended” the meetings, but many people don’t really attend or just sit there and don’t participate. It’s more of a requirement for some than getting value. If it really worked then there would not be a high percentage of people that don’t end up quitting.

  37. If only TWA had an AA program when Freddy Trump, the 25-year-old 707 pilot whose father and brother called him just a “bus driver in the sky”, was trying to define his own success in life.

  38. @Gene: I too agree. There should be zero tolerance with people flying commercial planes. How many times did this Buddhist feel it was ok to fly drunk or hungover before he was caught. Doubt he came clean or he would have entered a program first. Americans and the love to place blame on the other by suing.

  39. Richard, you have court decisions on mandated AA attendance exactly backwards.

    See e.g. Arnold v. Tennessee Board of Paroles (1997), Griffin v. Coughlin (New York, 1996), Warner v. Orange County Dep’t. of Probation (2nd Cir. 1997), Rauser v. Horn (3rd Cir. 2001), Kerr v. Farrey (7th Cir. 1996), Inouye v. Kemna (2007), Hazle v. Crofoot (2013), Sundquist v. Nebraska (2015)

    All are rulings against state mandated AA attendance.

    Also, AA doesn’t have a very good track record, particularly for people who are coerced to attend.

    Given that there are also many court opinions saying that private employers can’t coerce employees when it comes to religion, I’d say this lawsuit will (and should) win.

    In addition to vetting AA as an effective program, United Airlines should have also checked into the legal issues if it was the only program they would accept.

  40. @Brian Westley:

    Not an attorney here, just asking from curiosity. My guess is this might stem from a labor contract since much of these actions against pilots are probably negotiated. (Just an assumption). Would that change things?

  41. Buddhists don’t drink beyond moderation…

    If UA’s program to finish at least an AA fifth step didn’t work, UA would not continue using it. However, United should provide more than one option because AA is not or does not pretend to have a monopoly on recovery.

    As others have said AA is not a Christian program. There is no heaven/hell and meetings are also available in office buildings, clubhouses, schools, restaurants, and even airports and hotels. There are Buddhist members of AA. They can choose a higher power of their understanding.

  42. @Ray, I don’t think a contract would affect the outcome, it might violate title VII of the 1964 civil rights act. I’m not a lawyer, either.

  43. I don’t know. The goal of this program was to deal with his alcoholism. He lives in a society that is predominantly Christian and full of Christian symbols and values. Should not have been a big deal.

  44. AA is religious, advocates / promotes belief & a course of action absolutely explicitly based on Deism at least: belief in a higher non-human power.

    And that is inconsistent with Buddhist belief and practice. Making violating one’s own beliefs and practices, in favor of some others’ beliefs and practices, a condition of employment, is discriminatory (and contrary to law, regulation, and USA cultural founding values.

    The pilot and EEOC were correct.

  45. If the pilot in question had a drinking problem, then his alcoholism could endanger the safety of the United Airlines passengers. Therefore, this pilot should be grateful to the airline it sponsored his rehabilitation program. Other airlines could have fired him.

    Therefore, he should go with the program, quit alcohol and stop misusing the whole religion angle to his advantage.

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