Atheist, Former Drug Addict to Receive Compensation After Being Asked to Attend 'Religious-Themed' Rehab

An atheist and former parolee should be awarded compensation by the state of California for forcing him back to jail after he refused to attend a religious-themed rehabilitation program for methamphetamine addiction, a federal appeals court ruled late last week.

Barry A. Hazle Jr., of Redding, Calif., was arrested in 2006 for methamphetamine possession and served jail time for one year. In 2007, his parole officer ordered him to take a 12-step rehabilitation course as part of his parole sentence. Hazle, an atheist, strongly objected to taking the course because it was "religiously-themed" and included acknowledgment of a higher power.

When he continued to complain about the course's structure, he was pulled from the rehabilitation program and sent back to prison for an additional three months. Hazle is reportedly a member of several secular groups in California, and at the time of his parole agreement, no secular-themed rehabilitation courses were available near his home in Shasta County, meaning the only courses available were those with "religious-themes."

Hazle, 45, sued California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation officials for First Amendment violations, and in 2010 a jury found that Hazle's First Amendment rights had in fact been violated. However, the jury did not rule that the state of California was obligated to award Hazle monetary compensation for his damages, which included loss of liberty and emotional distress.

At the time, U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. agreed with the jury, saying that Hazle's constitutional rights were violated when he was forced into a religious-themed rehabilitation program because the parole sentence ran "afoul of the prohibition against the state's favoring religion in general over non-religion." Judge Burrell refused to grant Hazle a new trial that would contest the jury's denial of compensation.

Last Friday, U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals judge Stephen Reinhardt ruled that Hazle should be given a new trial that would address the compensatory damages that must be awarded to him by the state of California for violating his First Amendment rights.

In his opinion, Judge Reinhardt wrote that Burrell's previous ruling was wrong on multiple counts. "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.

Judge Reinhardt added that because Hazle suffered "actual injury" when he was re-jailed, it was mandatory to award him compensation. "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," Judge Reinhardt wrote.

"Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle's unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge's finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory," Reinhardt added. 

Hazle's attorney John Heller said in a statement on Friday that his client "will finally be able to obtain the vindication to which he's entitled," according to the Associated Press.

The former parolee's case now goes back to Burrell in the district court of Sacramento. Burrell will also need to reconsider allowing state officials to force parolees to attend religious-oriented rehabilitation programs.