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$2M Award Reignites Religion vs. Recovery Debate

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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.
Learn more about the treatment options for alcohol abuse and addiction.

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What Are Your Thoughts on this Topic?

  • DocBeasley

    Although I am a person of faith, faith is volitional from both ends. You have to want God and God want volunteers, not draftees. I have two perspectives: 1) I don’t think the government should order people to faith-based programs. I think a faith-based program could be offered as an option but not as a sole choice, so the decision remains with the individual. 2) If he didn’t like the deal, he could have just stayed in jail.

    • Charles Bloom

      Amen!!!! He could have said no so why award him anything?

    • Barry Jeffers

      Sometimes draftees re-up.

  • http://batman-news.com Michael

    What particular faith was he forced to follow? As a child I was brought up in the Catholic faith and I can’t remember the local priest nor the Canon at school nor the Bishop ever suggesting to me that I choose my own conception of a Higher Power…! This court ruling makes no sense whatsoever.

    • Alex Rivenbark

      The court ruling makes perfect sense. The First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, meaning that one can choose any religion that he or she sees fit. One could argue, as some have, that Atheism is a religion, as it involves a belief system that involves a God or gods and the afterlife. Due to this, forcing one to participate in anything that requires you to abandon your current belief system, or to subscribe to one that you choose not to, is an irrefutable violation of his or her First Amendment rights.
      Your argument here is that the Catholic faith never suggested that you choose your own conception of God. Of course they did not! That would be a direct contradiction to that belief system! We are not talking about practices within one religion, but rather about one’s freedom to choose his or her religion and not be forced to follow any religion. In this case, since this man’s belief system (that there is no superior God of gods) was dismissed and his only option was to attend a facility where he must go against his belief system, this is a clear First Amendment rights violation.

      • http://batman-news.com Michael

        Hi Alex, thanks for your response. If the First Amendment is about freedom of choice then the AA 12 Steps of Recovery allows that. I only referred to Catholicism as that was the faith I was brought up in and to highlight that religions don’t ask/allow you to choose your own conception. Today I follow no particular faith/religion but practice the 12 steps of recovery. The program states that I choose my own conception of God, however inadequate. It also has a chapter to the agnostic. It also states “By personal religious
        affiliation, we include Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Hindus, and a sprinkling
        of Moslems and Buddhists.”. if religious, it states “Those having religious affiliations will find here nothing disturbing to
        their beliefs or ceremonies.” Carry on following whatever religion you want to as the 12 Steps of recovery are not a religious program. For me my concept of a Higher Power/God was that I didn’t have one but I was willing to concede somewhere on this planet, within this universe there may be something (for the good) that has more power over me…! Maybe, just maybe, the problem is that AA have allowed itself to be placed in a position where non-alocoholics are mandated to attend AA. Now that really is insane and something I do not agree with.

  • Andrea Whittaker

    Reminds me of the million dollar settlement to a disgruntled M
    acdonald’s customer for spilled hot coffee! Money doesn’t buy sobriety! He could have taken what he needed from the AA program and left the rest aside….with gratitude! I’m just saying ..

  • Valeriejean W.

    My prediction for Barry A. Hazle Jr. 46, is, when all is said & done, that he will have burned through his settlement money, with arrogance, attempting to fill “the hole” he tried to fill with drugs in the first place. Sadly I expect that in the end the last of his assets & money will be eaten up by:
    His drug of choice
    Legal costs attempting to avoid the consequences of addict behavior
    Hospitalization &/or his Funeral
    I hope this is not the path he follows, however the success rate for addicts/alcoholics achieving long term sobriety are very low but the rate of success goes way up for people who rely on a Higher Power.
    His Higher Power can be his Parole Officer for all I care & I wish him luck on his journey but the tragic truth is this:
    Jails–Institutions–Death… these are the alternatives to Sobriety.
    I choose Sobriety with the help of a Higher Power & one day at a time I am a success.

    • Deke Hardwick

      The Trifecta of Truth for an addict with no higher power, the inevitable and 100% absolute certain outcome of active addiction. Jails, Institutions and Death, indisputable.

  • Brenda Winters

    AA works to help addicts change their lives. Too bad this man did not appreciate the program. AA accepts all religions and non-religions. The judge must not have been aware of this because AA is not a faith based group.

    • Deke Hardwick

      I agree with all, accept Faith should not be confused with religion. AA is entirely Faith based, for it is faith in something greater than our selves that is the benevolent boundless rock we rely on, that can do things we failed to do with our own best efforts and greatest asserted self discipline and willpower. Faith is a component of religions but religion is not always a component of faith.

  • http://www.beaconsocialcare.org.uk Barbara Schaefer

    I love the story. While I agree this guy may have missed an opportunity to broaden his horizon. it is humbling to realise for AA how they can come across – treating the program as religion!

    • Amber Carson

      It’s not AA he sued. It’s a 12 step based treatment center. Can’t you people read!

      • Alex Rivenbark

        “Can’t you people read!”? The article states that it was the State of California that was sued for the violation of this man’s First Amendment rights, not the treatment center. I agree with this decision. This man’s First Amendment rights were definitely violated.

  • Timothy White

    AA is NOT a religious program! It’s a spiritual program…Spirituality, in some form, is needed, in my opinion, to “do for us what we could not do for ourselves”. In other words, I can’t “recover from a seemingly hopeless state of mind and body” on my own. The court system needs a better understanding of what we try to do “in the rooms”.

    • Deke Hardwick

      Timothy, I give your comment a Hearty, Secular Amen.

  • Raphael Bruckner

    I’d be an atheist for 2million

  • Deke Hardwick

    Ignorance at Work.

    Just let them pick up trash, don’t try to plant any seed that they may need to help them battle a disease because you misinterpret it as a Religious program… which it is not. God is a word used widely around the world. It also is an acronym for Good Orderly Direction or Group of Drunks. It’s a word used in recovery in association with “of your understanding” which immediately implies it’s open to an individual’s own private understanding of an external faith… some use the fellowship or a door knob. Christians and Agnostics and Athiests alike are welcome and the Lord’s Prayer may be recited, you can opt out. It was left in the program that has done roots in a Christian group (Oxford group) which had employed some of Carl Jung’s philosphies and principles. Bill W noticed his friend who was in the group got sober that way and researched this extensively and he and Dr, Bob and a consortium gave us all this wonderful 100% effective set of suggestions and fellowship freely, and it has saved untold millions of life without imposed dogma or religion, all are welcome and their higher power does not have to be Jesus. I don’t think Jesus would mind as long as someone finds a faith that is benevolent and wants you to be happy, joyous and free without ulterior motives or agendas.

    Good Lord, talk about contempt prior to investigation. Why do we bother pretending we rehabilitate anyone?

  • Charles Bloom

    Lets face it this was not about religion or recovery. This is about money. If all he saw was the attempt to force religion on him he wasn’t ready for recovery. I don’t agree with everything i hear at meetings so I only take what I need. I really feel sorry for this man with 2 million dollars in his pocket and what appears to be a lack of any recovery groups behind him.

  • Paul Rose

    Sorry folks, there are other ways. For instance http://www.smartrecovery.org

    • Amber Carson

      Don’t be sorry we know. It’s even in the book, Bill states we don’t have a monopoly on therapy, or God. What we have is Hope!

  • agFinder

    The AA program definitely violates the humanistic philosophies of atheism. Like it or not, AA is a spiritual program which demands faith in a power which it calls ‘God’ many times. This fact has been discussed literally since the program began – in opinions and literature published by the General Service Office, in thousands of state, district, and local business meetings, and also as a topic of discussion in countless regular meetings. Indeed the millions of people who have recovered from alcoholism in AA did so precisely because they surrendered their will to “God as we understood Him” (quoted from AA’s 3rd step).

    The problem here is that the court was trying to make this guy actually recover. If they had simply let him be like the 8 people out of 10 who come to AA and scoff at this God idea (and do not recover) then the affair would have been over. Instead they (and the treatment center as well), basically told him that he would accept the God thing or else. That is not how AA works.

    I’ve seen people with parole attendance sheets come into meetings many, many times (very common) with the attitude that it was wrong to force them to come there – and then heard good group members tell them that to please not feel as if they were being forced to get sober in AA, only that they were being forced to come to meetings. Yes, they were also told that no one would sign their sheets until the meeting was over (because that would be asking us to lie for them and that wasn’t going to happen) but while they were there they could be as down on AA as they wanted.

    People at AA don’t really care if you get it. They got it, and if you want it they’ll do anything (really) to help you, but no one gets ‘converted’ to sobriety. If you come asking, you will get about a million times more than you think. If you don’t, then hey just put up with it for an hour and we’ll sign your sheet and if you’re not busy and want to come hang out a gang of us are going somewhere for coffee.

    Forcing recovery is thought-policing. I’m glad this guy got his money, but I’m sad that many people are now going to be cut off from at least finding out what AA has to offer. Like I’ve also heard those attendance sheet carriers told, now you know about it and even if you never want it maybe someone you know will. It’s only a few hours, make the best of it and may God bless you whether you like it or not :).

  • Trish C.

    I am perplexed by this for sure.
    Why didn’t one of us addicts think of this quick money scheme before now?
    I’m proud of my 9+years of recovery and I most certainly had a big problem with God when my beat down and broken soul finally hit the rooms.
    One of the 1ST things that I was taught by an old timer in NA was that a “higher power” didn’t have to mean any God of my understanding – it meant a power bigger than myself. It could be the power of my home group, the program or my sponsorship family. I wasn’t Christian when I hit the rooms and I had a serious issue with that God stemming from childhood.
    I was so wrapped up in my addiction that I believed that I was in control and I had heard all about these 12 step recovery programs and if I had to believe in some God to go to these meetings, well then I wasn’t going. That was just an excuse to keep using. I stayed out there a little longer until I finally hit rock bottom and there was no denying that the next step was death.

    I wont say that this is unbelievable because we all know the lengths we all went to continue our belief that we’re really in control or the lengths we went to get our way but this guy cracks me up. Just doing all this BS shows me that he’s still living dirty. And that is very sad.
    Regardless if you believe in any God or you believe no God exists at all, extorting money to still keep yourself singled out like you’re some special case that must be catered to just shows me that you’re ungrateful and still self centered at heart and for real you’re not about recovery at all. Especially acting out with passive aggressive behavior because you’re some atheist and that’s your excuse to continue to act out…wow.
    A grateful addict would walk the steps regardless and make the effort toward change (bc that’s what his parole said to do) and then once having some real clean time, (not just clean piss) and having finished his time, due to his crime (ie: accountability) then maybe assist with building/starting a program based more on his belief system or lack thereof.
    But Good Luck there buddy. I pray you can make it back and good luck working your own program with a pocket full of dough…

  • Barry Jeffers

    I have 28 yrs, partner. I see your photo in the article and wish you all the luck in the world. But I don’t see it happening, bro. I don’t see it.

  • Barry Jeffers

    The demon has found the slippery slope and we’re all due for a ride downhill.

  • Pat mccann

    The facts here are that AA does not affiliate with anybody and certainly does not endorse it’s views. Notice AA have stayed silent here while the world and it’s oyster are arguing. AA survives for folk like me as we keep our noses out. It’s principles before personalities and why we on AA get wonderfully sober the rest of society argues about us . AA is very very important to me…and my sobriety is the single most important factor in my life..and YES I do have a higher power and I also am very open minded and I tend to believe that the power of GOOD rules. While the rest are fighting we get sober…and how anyone vets sober without some discipline iv no idea!

  • Jeretha Lomax

    It took “a minute” but he finally got the court to get it twisted so he could get paid. However, the 12 Steps are Bible based concepts for a better life.

  • Greg Dalton

    He may not be an addict/alcoholic

  • Jim Kotouc

    I agree whole heartedly with Timothy White. If Mr. Hazel bothered to actually read the literature, he would find that the chapter titled “We Agnostics” in the basic text of the Alcoholics Anonymous “Big Book” very eloquently, and straighforwardly addresses this issue. I have personally known several people who identify themselves as “atheists” who attend AA meetings regularly. I think that this ruling is based on ignorance, and sets a very dangerous precedent. It is a sad commentary that a criminal cam profit like this.

    • Snicklefritz

      I read that chapter. I felt that it assumes the reader believes and will come around to accepting God. It left me frustrated, it didn’t help.

  • Warren R

    As a sober man for over 19 years, I knew one person to get sober using ‘rational recovery’ who at 3 years dry, put a gun to his mouth! I’m sure that money will buy a lot of meth! I pray he stays clean.

  • Carl Ball

    Sorry but this has nothing to do with AA. It is some treatment center claiming to use the 12 steps. I have seen some of the stuff they use and often it is a long ways from the 12 steps.

  • domenic

    I hope he relapses with the money that will show em!!

  • Nick Cataldi

    I am not in favor of forcing anyone to go to meetings.

  • Alex Rivenbark

    I have read the comments below and have seen a lot of differing opinions. While many think that this is a problem for AA, I do not think so. It may be able to be twisted around to where some states are no longer able to ‘force’ people into AA meetings, as this could be construed as a First Amendment rights violation since the word ‘God’ appears quite a bit in the literature. However, in AA, the only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking. Therefore AA itself is not forcing anyone to attend.
    That being said, I have read comments that seem to have been written by one who thinks that it is AA that is under the gun here. That is not the case at all. This is a lawsuit against the State of California – not the treatment facility, and not AA, which is decidedly not a religious program, but rather a spiritual program.
    This may sound mean, but if this prevents the state from ‘forcing’ people into AA meetings, while it will prevent a seed from being planted in someone who may eventually decide that he or she needs AA, it will also cut down on a lot of the ‘psycho babble’ that one hears in meetings from people who don’t want to be there, which is completely counter-productive to AAs purpose and may even prevent AA from being as helpful to voluntary newcomers who really need and WANT to be there.
    That’s my thoughts on this…

  • k.m.

    This article doesn’t properly distinguish between AA/NA and the “12-step recovery program” Hazel was “forced” to participate in–making it difficult to know how much his constitution rights were actually violated. I would argue that forcing someone to attend AA does not infringe on one’s constitutional right because it specifically says it has no religious affiliation. If the 12-step program Hazel attended did in fact have a mandatory religious program (in other words, if the program took 12-step principles and expanded on them in a way that was overtly religious), that would be a violation of his constitutional rights. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t give us enough information, so we are left to make assumptions that may not be accurate.

  • Guest

    No one should be forced to go to A.A…No matter what your take on this is……

    • Dave

      Every time a ruling has been made in an upper level court in the USA they have ruled that AA and the 12 steps are based on religious principles and it is a violation of the establishment clause of the first amendment to mandate a person to these programs. If a complainants human rights are violated by being mandated to these programs they deserve justice and compensation. There are many secular treatment and support groups with better clinical outcomes than AA and the 12 steps that people can be mandated to if they object to AA and the 12 steps due to its religious content. The fact that this is still happening seems to mean that people are ignorant of the case law or have some sort of vested interest in AA.

  • Guest

    This from the Court’s first paragraph. This is well settled.

  • Orlando Gotay

    First paragraph of the opinion, crystal clear.

    REINHARDT, Circuit Judge:

    In 2007, citing “uncommonly well-settled case law,” we

    held that the First Amendment is violated when the state

    coerces an individual to attend a religion-based drug or

    alcohol treatment program. Inouye v. Kemna, 504 F.3d 705,

    712, 716 (9th Cir. 2007)

  • Pixie

    Bravo. One of the problems with the United States is that AA-type programs have a near monopoly on recovery and addiction issues, partly, because, as many of you say here people are mandated to attend or either go to jail.

    It is hilarious to me that addicts will fully admit they have a disease in one breath and then in the second talk about how the only cure for their disease is to admit powerlessness and give it up to a higher power.

    People would look at you like you are crazy if you told them the same thing if you had Cancer or another disease, but yet this nonsense is accepted as treatment for the disease of addiction.

    If courts are going to allow people to go to treatment instead of jail (which I applaud them for), then that treatment should be of the person’s own choosing and not something that goes against their beliefs. The 12-step model works for some, but not for all, not for many, and its statistical efficacy is dubious at best.

    The best thing we could do for addicts in this country is expand the range and number of options available to addicts for treatment. Hopefully this decision will help create the space to do that.

    • Christine Braveman

      I agree with what Big Book says as stated by Amber Carson.
      ” Don’t be sorry we know. It’s even in the book, Bill states we don’t have a monopoly on therapy, or God. What we have is Hope!”

      I personally think AA is your best shot out there but courts pushed themselves into AA with signing slips. We never should have mixed with mandating people in the rooms as this is now the result. AA was built and structured not to be part of anything else, they knew it would cause future issues.
      Man gave up 100 days of freedom and was ordered to do what traditions forbid we force on anyone.
      If AA became centered on Satan in future to avoid God would you accept it as truth? Why force this man. Just because he was a drunk does not mean he buy into any spiritual program, period. The rest are opinions not in keeping with fundemental teaching by founders of AA.

  • Bryan P

    I have smoked, snorted, inhaled & drank myself into legal issues. I was nudged by the judge to attend meetings with a 12-Step base & attend 12-Step Treatment centers. In the past few years with my new “design for living” I have also worked in the field to help others with similar issues find a new way of life.

    At first, the idea of a ‘Power Greater Than Myself’ / ‘God’ / ‘Higher Power’ did steer me away from hearing the solution offered to help remedy my allergy of mind, body & spirit; however it was never forced upon me. I was never shunned or told that I failed because I did not believe in One Supreme Being or a single Righteous Creator. Only after continued years of pain & “research” was I able to understand the difference between “my own understanding” and ‘God’. It was merely suggested to me by a fellow who had come before me, to seek something more than myself. Over time, I am grateful to say, I have been able to have faith in a concept of my own understanding that blends seamlessly with my Atheistic tendencies.

    I’m saddened to read this article, albeit well written and at no fault to the journalist who reported the factual basis of this story. I am saddened because I wish that our legal system had a better understanding of 12-Step Recovery, and wouldn’t penalize an individual because they didn’t find this particular solution to be a good fit for them.

  • William Kus

    If he’s so against religion, he should refuse the 2 Million dollars since all the money will have the words “In God We Trust.” on it, but of course he won’t give a shit because he is full of shit.

  • Christine Davies

    I will be glad when people are no longer forced into NA/AA as a condition of probation/parole, or as a forced treatment in lieu of actually doing the time for a crime committed. Why send someone to a rehab when they clearly do want to do so and occupy a bed for the person who actually wants sobriety. The 12 step programs were designed for those who wish to live a sober life, not as a form of treatment or punishment in lieu of prison. I say thank you to this man for setting a precedent.

  • William Kus

    Since when is being in jail/prison, or on probation or parole any less (if not obviously more) of a loss of liberty than a freaking 12-step program?!?! What the hell Is going on here???

    • Brian Paulander

      It is about intellectual freedom!

  • Philip Lee

    I have been in AA for 12 years, and I am agnostic…So much for it being a religious program, especially when I don’t believe in religion…Thus, that whole agnostic thing. People forget that the whole “GOD” thing can be interpreted as “Good Orderly Direction”.

    • Brian Paulander

      Very true Philip!

  • Brian Paulander

    The problem with AA is that it approaches alcolism as a moral problem. A lot of alcoholics do not have a moral problem that needs to be fixed by God (HP). They sufferr from addicition! The 12 steps are shamed based, and keep the addict in shame!


    Good for him!! All the negative response sound’s like someone is concerned about there Job in recovery!!! It’s a billion dollar bizz. Bill and bob would probably roll over in there grave! 3 out of 100 make it out of this. And some of the so called Experts involved in Recovery Making BIG BUCK’S are Fake’s and fraud’s! I know several, A person Must make that choose, Its hard ( I know). It just amazes me what money can do to people!!! AA IS NOT A BIZZ. RECOVERY HOMES AND PROGRAMS HAVE DILUTED ITS TRUE MEANING. SELL ALL YOUR BELONGING’S AND START TRAVELING THE EARTH HOLDING SOMEONE’S HAND THAT REALLY WANT’S IT THERE’S ONLY A FEW!!!

  • Charlie Haviland

    AA makes no efforts to to be characterized as religious or non-religious. The organization’s edict that “No A.A. group or member should ever, in such a way as to implicate A.A., express any opinion on outside controversial issues—particularly those of politics, alcohol reform, or sectarian religion” precludes the fellowship from taking a stand either way; either in public or private

  • johnctoliver

    I’m not an addict but had attended AA meetings when in college for class. Didn’t get a religous vibe at all. It was more discussion based and these type of meetings can be found every single night in each and every city. Discussion and support are as good of a fighter against relapse as any. http://www.summitbhc.com.

    • Jay Bell

      Did the prayer escape you?