Judge backs atheist parolee who balked at a religious anti-drug programme

AN ATHEIST drug offender in California, who was returned to prison after complaining about a faith-based rehabilitation programme he was ordered to attend, has won an important legal victory.

Barry A Hazle Jr

Barry A Hazle Jr, 41, served a year in prison on a drug charge. As a condition of his release, he was ordered to attend a 90-day, in-patient drug treatment programme. He agreed to the programme, but even before his release told prison officials he wanted to be sent to:

A treatment facility that did not contain religious components.

Instead, he was assigned to the Empire Recovery Centre in Redding, to undergo a 12-step programme pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and featuring a strong religious element which included references to God and “a higher power.”

When Hazle asked to be moved to a programme that was not run by faith-heads, he was told – wrongly, as it turned out – there were none in Northern California.

His parole agent, Mitch Crofoot, instructed him that “he should continue to participate in the Empire programme or he would be returned to prison.

Hazle kept attending, but continued objecting to the arrangement. He presented Crofoot with a written appeal on April 3, 2007.

Three days later, according to court papers, Empire workers told the parole agent that Hazle had “been disruptive, though in a congenial way.”

He was then returned to prison for more than three months. In September 2008, he sued officials at the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Six weeks later, the department issued a directive noting that parole agents “cannot compel a parolee” to take part in religiously-themed programmes if the parolee objects.

Instead, such parolees should be referred to non-religious programmes

Last week Hazel won his case from when US District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. decided in his favour, and he now stands to collect damages for having his constitutional rights violated.

In a statement issued through his attorney, Hazle said:

This has been a long and painful process for me. The judge’s ruling can’t give me back my lost freedom, but it begins to restore my faith in our judicial system.

Judge Burrell found that Hazle’s forced participation in the programme ran:

Afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favouring religion in general over non-religion.

Monetary damages are to be determined, either by settlement or trial. A jury trial is scheduled to begin June 22.