WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Paul Cox was having nightmares.

He told a fellow member of Alcoholics Anonymous about the dreams, which centered on the night Cox stabbed a couple to death in a drunken stupor in 1988. Cox had told other Alcoholics Anonymous members about the slaying before but, this time, his confidant went to the police.

In his 1995 trial, several members of Alcoholics Anonymous testified under subpoena that Cox had told them he killed Dr. Lakshman Rao Chervu and his wife, Dr. Shanta Chervu, in their suburban New York City home in 1988. A jury convicted Cox of manslaughter, and he received up to 50 years in prison.

On July 31, however, U.S. District Judge Charles Brieant overturned the conviction, ruling that the Alcoholics Anonymous members should not have been required to testify, because the group is a religious organization. Under New York law, confessions made to “a clergyman or other minister of any religion” cannot be used as evidence, unless the person confiding waives that privilege.

Westchester County District Attorney Jeanine Pirro announced that she would appeal the decision. She told ABC News that, since Cox made his confessions outside the context of regular Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, his claim was “not unlike going to church and then having a cup of coffee down the road 10 minutes later with someone sitting next to you and saying, ‘By the way, I killed two people.’”

Cox will remain in jail until the appeal has been completed.

Alcoholics Anonymous denies that it is a religion. Although the group does not designate members as spokesmen, and will not allow them to be identified by name, a staff member at the group's general service office in New York said that the group's emphasis on a “higher power” is a reference solely to “god as you understand god.”

The staff member said that Alcoholics Anonymous' traditions do not permit it to comment on political, medical or legal issues.

However, he noted, Alcoholics Anonymous has “no requirement that you believe in any specific dogma. The sentiment in AA is that you need to come to a belief in a power greater than yourself, whatever that power is.”

“44 Questions,” an Alcoholics Anonymous pamphlet, states, “Alcoholics Anonymous is not a religious society, since it requires no definite religious belief as a condition of membership.” A member can interpret the group's “spiritual values... as he or she thinks best, or not to think about them at all,” the pamphlet says.

The most controversial portions of the Alcoholics Anonymous “12 Step” program are those that speak of a “higher power.” The group's pamphlet states, “Some alcoholics choose to consider the AA group itself as the power greater than themselves; for many others, this Power is God — as they, individually, understand Him; still others rely upon entirely different concepts of a Higher Power.”

The legal privilege extended in U.S. law to religious communications is based on the Catholic seal of confession, which requires a priest to keep absolutely secret any confidences given during the Sacrament of Penance. Even if a religion does not have a specific group of priests or ministers, however, members can still invoke the legal protection if they confess to another member.

New York's standards protect any disclosurre made “in confidence and for the purpose of obtaining spiritual guidance.”

1996 and 1999 cases in New York and federal courts ruled that Alcoholics Anonymous “entails engagement in religious activity and religious proselytization.” Brieant also noted that meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous closed with the Lord's Prayer.

Criminals Anonymous?

Because Step Five of the Alcoholics Anonymous program requires confessing wrongdoings “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being,” Brieant ruled that Cox's confessions to other group members were part of the “discipline imposed upon him by AA.”

Prosecutor Pirro accused Brieant of being “an activist judge,” and said that his ruling “impedes the truth-finding process.” She said that decisions as to the definition of religion should be left to the legislature, not the courts.

Pirro suggested that a group might even designate itself “Criminals Anonymous,” and invoke the religious-confidence privilege for its members' confessions.

William P. Marshall, professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law, noted that “courts are very reluctant” to take cases that involve defining religion. “It's fraught with constitutional peril,” he said, “but occasionally a case comes before them and they literally have to make a decision as part of deciding the case.”

The U.S. Supreme Court has addressed the issue of what makes a religion a religion only in two cases involving conscientious objectors, Marshall said. In those cases, the court laid out criteria centering on the issue of “sincerity of belief.”

In this view, particular doctrines or statements on the nature of God are less important than whether “the belief occupied the same place in the mind of the believer as religion does,” Marshall said.

There is still disagreement about whether there must be a theistic component. Some legal scholars believe that secular humanism is, legally speaking, a “religion”; others do not.

‘Religious’ or ‘Spiritual’?

Jim Christopher, who founded SOS — Secular Organizations for Sobriety — in 1985 after leaving Alcoholics Anonymous, disputed Alcoholics Anonymous' distinction between being “religious” and being “spiritual.”

“They speak of conscious contact with God and prayer,” he said. “You have to turn your will and your life over to a higher power.”

“It does sound like they're trying to be inclusive,” Christopher acknowledged. “They say everyone is welcome. But [the book Alcoholics Anonymous, the group's basic text] devotes a chapter to the agnostic that says, basically, ‘You poor thing. You will come to believe.’ That makes folks feel out of place.”

Christopher disagreed with Alcoholics Anonymous' contention that the “higher power” can be understood in innumerable different ways.

Said Christopher, “Turning my will and my life over to a door-knob, or to the group — some of these things are just silly, and some are dangerous.”

Eve Tushnet writes from Washington, D.C.