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$2M Award Reignites Religion vs. Recovery Debate

Photo via istock

Photo via istock

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After a lengthy court battle, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals awarded nearly $2 million to Barry A. Hazle Jr., a California man forced to participate in a faith-based 12-step recovery program.

“I’m thrilled to finally have this case settled,” said Hazle. “It sends a clear message to people in a position of authority, like my parole agent, for example, that they not mandate religious programming for their parolees, and for anyone else, for that matter.”

Forced into a Religious Program?

In 2007, Barry A. Hazle Jr., 46, received a lengthy prison sentence after being caught with methamphetamine. When he was later granted parole, the stipulations of his release included enrollment at Westcare, a 12-step recovery program that requires its participants to surrender to a “higher power.”

As an atheist, Hazle claimed the faith-based program was at odds with his own set of personal beliefs. After voicing those concerns to his parole officer, Hazle was told Westcare’s sobriety program was the only one available.

Forced to attend the 12-step program in exchange for his freedom, Hazle became frustrated. Medical records obtained from Westcare note that Hazle was “disruptive, though in a congenial way, to the staff as well as other students…sort of passive-aggressive and in need of further treatment.”

Hazle’s probation officer eventually violated his parole and sent him back to prison for more than 100 days.

First Court Case

In 2008, Hazle filed suit against the state of California, noting that mandatory participation in a faith-based program was a violation of his First Amendment rights. He ultimately won the case, but no damages were awarded by the jury.

It took another five years for the case to reach the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, where the previous ruling was thrown out. In 2013, the 9th Circuit ruled Hazle was entitled to compensation and ordered a retrial. One month ago, his lawyers announced he would receive a $1.95 million settlement.

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 Stephen Reinhardt

The Ripple Effect

The California Department of Corrections took note of this case – and then took action. They quickly issued new rules that prevent state parole officers from forcing a parolee to attend faith-based rehab programs. This case and its resulting outcome could set a new legal precedent, especially among judges ruling on the manner in which parolees are remanded to drug rehab programs.

Each year, the court systems place more than 150,000 people in mandatory AA/NA programs. Despite conditions or intentions, forced attendance has never been part of AA’s original traditions, which state “the only requirement for membership is a desire to stop drinking.”

Over the last several years, AA/NA made efforts to skirt the religion issue, saying the term “higher power” doesn’t necessarily refer to God or a symbol of faith. However, the insinuation still lingers and, for some, that’s enough to deter participation.

The problem is that a large portion of rehab programs rely heavily on the traditional 12-step model. Without an acceptable number of alternative programs to fill the void, those seeking sobriety, parole, or some simple support will be left out in the cold. Clearly, the recovery industry and the court systems will both need to adapt.

As for Hazle’s future, he has plans to become an advocate in the local drug rehabilitation community.
 
 
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