An atheist who once spent 100 days in prison because he refused to enter a religion-based rehab program has been awarded a sizable settlement for his unjust treatment.
Back in 2007, Californian Barry Hazle was busted for possession of methamphetamine and sentenced to one year in jail. Hazle was paroled, but to stay out of jail he had to enter a treatment program. That’s where Hazle, described in media reports as a lifelong atheist, ran into trouble.
Hazle was ordered to attend a program run by Fresno-based WestCare California, Inc. On its website, the WestCare Foundation describes itself as “a family of tax-exempt nonprofit organizations” that offers “a wide spectrum of health and human services in both residential and outpatient environments.” Those services include “substance abuse and addiction treatment, homeless and runaway shelters, domestic violence treatment and prevention, and mental health programs.”
That all sounds fine and good. The problem is WestCare’s program requires entrants to acknowledge the existence of a higher power – much like Alcoholics Anonymous and other well-known rehab programs.
Since Hazle doesn’t believe in God, he complained about the content of WestCare’s treatment program, and that landed him right back in prison for more than three months.
Clearly not one to go down without a fight, Hazle sued the California Department of Corrections and WestCare. The Department of Corrections changed its policy about faith-based rehab programs six weeks after that suit was filed in 2008 so that parolees cannot be forced into treatment programs that include religious components, the Sacramento Bee reported.
But even with that victory, Hazle didn’t drop his suit. Although U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. found rightly that Hazle’s punishment ran “afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over nonreligion,” a jury nonetheless decided not to award him any monetary compensation for his unconstitutional treatment, the Bee said.
So Hazle appealed. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with him, deciding in August 2013 that he is entitled to damages. The case was then sent back to Burrell for a retrial, but this week Hazle’s attorney hammered out a settlement: California will pay him $1 million and WestCare owes him $925,000.
Hazle and his attorney, John Heller, told the Bee that they were pleased with the outcome.
Of course from a church-state standpoint, the real victory here is that California will no longer be able to force anyone into a faith-based treatment program. It’s fine to have different rehab programs available to drug offenders – even if they’re faith-based – but religious ones must remain optional.
Since California changed its rehab policy years ago, it seems Hazle’s saga won’t likely be repeated. But the monetary damages should be effective insurance against any misguided state lawmakers or officials who want to tinker with California’s mandated rehab policy down the road. Officials in other states should take notice as well.