Atheists have not often received the benefit of the doubt under the U.S. Constitution’s guarantee of religious freedom, but a federal appeals court last week took a big step to recognizing that people who have faith in no God enjoy the same rights as those who do.
In 2007, Barry A. Hazle was released on parole after serving a prison sentence on drug possession charges. At the time, a court ordered him to participate in a 12-step drug rehab program. Such programs require participants to affirm belief in God, but Hazle did not believe in God and requested that he he be placed in a different program.
The court said no such nonreligious program was available. Hazle then took part in the 12-step program at Empire Recovery Center in Redding, Calif., but while there, he caused disruptions in order to register his objection to its religious aspects.
His resistance was carried out, “in a congenial way, to the staff as well as other students ... sort of passive-aggressive,” Empire employees said in court documents.
Nonetheless, Hazle (pictured) was sent back to prison because of his “negative behavior.” He remained incarcerated for 100 days.
So Hazle, now 40, sued. He asserted that his constitutional rights under the First Amendment had been violated. The state’s refusal to send him to a non-faith-based rehab program amounted to the government favoring an establishment of religion.
In April, a federal judge in Sacramento, Calif., ruled in Hazle’s favor but left it to a jury to determine how Hazle should be compensated for the violation of his rights. The jury awarded Hazle nothing.
On Friday, a three-judge appeals court panel ruled that nothing was not enough.
Because Hazle suffered “actual injury” by his jailing, “an award of compensatory damages was mandatory,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt, in the court’s opinion.
A federal court ruled in 2007 in favor of a Buddhist who objected to a mandatory, faith-based 12-step program, but Hazle’s case is the first time courts have ruled in favor of a person who rejects religion entirely, in a drug rehab case.
SOURCES: Los Angeles Times, Redding Record Searchlight, Jonathan Turley