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.



  1. Earold D Gunter

    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!

  2. It is utterly ABHORRENT that the government imprisoned a man for 100 days for the “crime” of declining to assert a belief in God. To emphasize this point, the program director described his behavior in the program as “congenial” and “passive”, and nonetheless had the gall to declare him “disruptive” for declining to participate in religious activities. At which point the parole officer and his superior had him imprisoned.

    I found it appalling that the jury awarded ZERO damages, however after reading the full ruling it appears that the jury *might* not be the religious-asshats that they appear to be. At the risk of playing devil’s advocate here, they may have been attempting to carry out screwed up instructions from the judge. First, the original judge basically instructed the jury that it was their job to decide who was at fault, and telling them it was their job to decide the proper damages to place on each defendant in the case. (According to the Appellate ruling the judge screwed up there, legally each defendant was 100% at fault, and the judge should have instructed the jury *only* to figure out total damages.) During deliberations the jury sent out a question which seems to be asking if they can place the blame on some other person or entity. The judge sent back instructions basically saying these are the only parties being sued here, and it’s your job to assign appropriate damages for each of these parties. (The Appellate ruling notes argument that this instruction by the judge was an error, but they don’t specifically rule on that point.) The jury then returns zero damages for each named defendant. The original judge then suggests that the jury could have been trying to place 100% of the blame on some other person or other part of the government. The jury may have believed they were required to place zero damages on these particular people and agencies.

    It’s possible the jury believed the judge trapped them on a dead-end road.
    Or maybe they really were just a bunch of theocratic fucktards.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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