Beliefs Politics

Court says atheist was wrongly jailed over religious rehab

SAN FRANCISCO (RNS) An atheist parolee should be compensated by California after the state returned him to prison for refusing to participate in a religiously-oriented rehabilitation program, a federal court ruled Friday (Aug. 23).

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a lower court judge erred when he denied Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender and an atheist, a new trial after a jury awarded him no damages.

In a move that could have wider implications, the appeals court also ordered a Sacramento district judge to consider preventing state officials from requiring parolees attend rehabilitation programs that are focused on God or a “higher power.”

Hazle was serving time for methamphetamine possession in 2007 when, as a condition of his parole, he was required to participate in a 12-step program that recognizes a higher power. Hazle, a life-long atheist and member of several secular humanist groups, informed his parole officer that he did not want to participate in the program and would prefer a secular-based program.

According to court documents, the parole officer informed Hazle the state offered no secular treatment alternatives. When Hazle entered the program but continued to object, he was arrested for violating his parole and returned to a state prison for an additional 100 days.

Secular Organizations for Sobriety, a 12-step program with no emphasis on God or a higher power, runs multiple programs in California, but had none near Hazle’s home in Northern California during that period.

Hazle sued, alleging his First Amendment rights had been violated. The district court agreed, citing well-established rulings supporting Hazle’s claim, but allowed to stand a jury’s conclusion that he deserved no compensation.

Friday’s ruling requires Hazle be awarded a new trial for damages and compensation.

“The jury’s verdict, which awarded Hazle no compensatory damages at all for his loss of liberty, cannot be upheld,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in the court’s opinion.

“The jury simply was not entitled to refuse to award any damages for Hazle’s undisputable — and undisputed — loss of liberty, and its verdict to the contrary must be rejected.”

The case now returns to the district court in Sacramento.


About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.


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  • Odds are the jury was made up of “believers” who sought to teach Mr. Hazle a lesson about not being one of them and having the audacity to stand up for himself about it. A perfect exhibition of the tolerance taught by the “good book”.

    Don’t need a carrot and a stick for people to treat each other with love.
    Good day!

  • Hazle was ordered to residential treatment. Secular Organizations for Sobriety only has meetings (group therapy), not residential treatment. There is no secular residential treatment provider in California.

    What really surprises me is that everyone admitted there was no secular alternative, rather than playing the “it’s not religious it’s spiritual” card.

  • I imagine that the religious types who don’t understand why Hazle was opposed to religious flavored “therapy” would grok it in a different scenario.

    Like getting sent to Scientology’s version of rehab, Narconon. If you think Christian rehab is bad…you have no idea the horrors Narconon imposes!

    But yeah, they would definitely whine about having Scientology doctrine imposed on them. I have no doubt.

  • just for the record: Secular Organizations for Sobriety/Save Our Selves (SOS) is NOT A 12 STEP PROGRAM. more to the point, SOS has distinguished itself by being – in its own words – “the world’s largest non-12-Step addiction recovery program” & “The Proven Alternative to 12-Step Programs”.

    by their very nature, 12 Step programs are religious. atheist/agnostic/secular attendees may re-write the steps to suit their own beliefs (or lack thereof) but their edits are significant.

    the only guarantee in the 12 Steps is “a spiritual awakening”, not the cessation of alcoholic or addictive behaviors. erroneously stating that SOS is a “12-step program” misleads readers about the nature of SOS & the nature of 12 Step practice. this should corrected.

  • There are other non-12-step support options in Northern California. LifeRing Secular recovery offers approximately 100 meetings per week in N. CA and an additional capability of on-line meetings. LifeRing welcomes people of all faiths or none.
    Local and state governments and courts refuse to recognize alternates because they have not grown. Alternates have not grown because they are not recognized.
    There is an existing hegemony of entanglement by 12-Step, the treatment industry, local government, and courts.

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