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Atheist Sues Over Religious 12-Step Program, Settles for $1.9M

By Mark Wilson, Esq. | Last updated on

Parolees in California can be required to enroll in drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs as part of their parole or probation. But it's potentially crossing a line to ask an atheist parolee to surrender to a higher deity that he doesn't believe in.

That's what happened to Barry Hazle of Shasta County, who was paroled after a prison term for meth possession and then ordered to enroll in a drug treatment program. The program required that he "submit to a 'higher power,'" the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

Hazle, a lifelong atheist, was having none of it.

Submit to a Higher Authority

Programs based on Alcoholics Anonymous' 12-step model explicitly invoke a higher power in six of their 12 steps. Atheists around the country didn't much care for this and started their own support group, minus the deities. But a problem arose when courts all over the place began requiring enrollment in AA -- along with its focus on higher powers -- as part of defendants' sentences.

This, of course, gets into thorny Establishment Clause issues -- issues which Hazle litigated by filing a lawsuit. In 2008, he won a jury verdict in his favor, but received no money. He appealed to the Ninth Circuit, which said he was entitled to something and sent the case back to trial court.

Now, the parties have settled and Hazle will walk away with $1 million from the State of California and $925,000 from WestCare, the contractor that handles referrals to drug treatment programs.

Not a Thrilling New Result

It's not that the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) didn't have any atheistic 12-step programs; it's that WestCare's was the only CDCR-approved program in Shasta County, where Hazle lived, and it happened to be a theistic program. (Although, according to the Chronicle, "WestCare said it never received the corrections department's order and doesn't understand the term 'alternative non-religious program.'")

Courts in seven different circuits have all ruled that court-mandated attendance in a theistic drug treatment program violates the Establishment Clause because of its heavy religious components, says the Freedom from Religion Foundation. Indeed, the Second Circuit said in a 2002 case, "[T]o the best of our knowledge, no court presented with an Establishment Clause challenge implicating A.A. or a comparable therapy program incorporating religious concepts has reached a contrary [conclusion]."

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