How A California Man Was Forced To Spend 100 Days In Prison For Being An Atheist

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Barry Hazle is an atheist who was incarcerated for a year due to a drug charge before he was released on parole. As a condition of his parole, however, Hazle was required to attend a 90-day residential drug treatment program. Although Hazle did not object to attending such a program, he did object to the fact that he was assigned to a 12-step program with explicitly religious content referring to “God” and a “higher power.” As Hazle wrote in an official challenge to this placement, “I have committed myself to a full and lasting secular recovery and complete abstinence from illegal drugs,” but he objects to “forced participation in any spiritual/religious activities.”

Despite his objections, Hazle remained in the religious 12-step program, all while unsuccessfully trying to get transferred to a secular program. A little over a month after he entered the program, however, the program complained that Hazle was “sort of passive aggressive.” Hazle was charged with a parole violation, arrested, and incarcerated for another 100 days. Though the state later claimed that he was removed from the 12-step program due to his own behavior, a federal judge rejected this claim, explaining that the state’s “argument rings hollow in light of the undisputed facts showing that Plaintiff was only ‘disruptive’ in the program ‘in a congenial way.’”

More importantly, the Constitution forbade the state of California from placing him in a religious program against his will in the first place. As the Supreme Court explained in the 1947 case Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing,

Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. . . . In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

More recently, the federal appeals court which oversees California was even more direct. “For the government to coerce someone to participate in religious activities,” the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit explained in Inouye v. Kemna, “strikes at the core of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.” So Mr. Hazle could not be given a choice between participating in a religious program or being put back behind bars.

Hazle was paroled and later returned to prison in 2007. The final chapter in his encounter with the legal system was not written until Monday of this week — although it is a chapter that is likely to scare other states away from similar constitutional violations in the future. Under a settlement negotiated with the state and the contractor who ran the religious 12-step program, Hazle will receive nearly $2 million.

The state has also changed its policies to require parolees in Hazle’s position to “be referred to an alternative nonreligious program.”

(HT: Hemant Mehta)