Judge backs Redding atheist who balked at religious anti-drug program

Barry A. Hazle Jr. served a year in prison on a drug charge. After he got out, his parole agent sent him back for being an atheist.

Now, the 41-year-old Redding computer technician has won a ruling from a Sacramento federal judge against the state and stands to collect damages for having his constitutional rights violated.

Even before U.S. District Judge Garland E. Burrell Jr. decided in his favor last week, California corrections officials had issued a new policy protecting the rights of atheist parolees.

“This has been a long and painful process for me,” Hazle said in a statement through his attorney this week. “The judge’s ruling can’t give me back my lost freedom, but it begins to restore my faith in our judicial system.”

Hazle’s fight with the state over religion began Feb. 27, 2007, when he was paroled from the California Rehabilitation Center, Norco, where he did a year for drug possession.

As a condition of his release, Hazle was ordered to attend a 90-day, inpatient drug treatment program. He agreed to the program but even before his release told prison officials he wanted to be sent to a “treatment facility that did not contain religious components,” federal court papers state.

Instead, he was assigned to the Empire Recovery Center in Redding, a 12-step program pioneered by Alcoholics Anonymous and featuring a strong religious overtone, utilizing references to God and “a higher power.”

When Hazle asked to be moved to a program that was not faith-based, he was told – wrongly, as it turned out – there was none in Northern California.

His parole agent, Mitch Crofoot, instructed him that “he should continue to participate in the Empire program or he would be returned to prison,” court papers state.

Hazle kept attending but also persisted in objecting to the arrangement, presenting Crofoot with a written appeal on April 3, 2007.

Three days later, according to court papers, Empire workers told the parole agent that Hazle had “been disruptive, though in a congenial way.”

That same day Crofoot called Hazle out of an Empire treatment class, arrested him on a parole violation for not participating in the very program he was attending, and booked him into the Shasta County jail.

Soon thereafter Hazle was returned to prison, where he spent more than three months.

In September 2008, he sued officials with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Six weeks later, the department issued a directive noting that parole agents “cannot compel a parolee” to take part in religious-themed programs if the parolee objects on religious grounds.

Instead, such parolees should be referred to nonreligious programs, the department said, citing an opinion issued Sept. 7, 2007, by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

But in court, the state argued that Hazle’s return to prison was because of his behavior.

In his 14-page order, Burrell pointed out the undisputed facts about Hazle’s behavior.

Crofoot’s own understanding, court papers show, was that Hazle “was not being loud; he wasn’t throwing things around; he wasn’t stomping around; he wasn’t being boisterous and that sort of thing. He was sort of passive aggressive.”

Burrell concluded the state’s argument “rings hollow.”

Instead, the judge found that Hazle’s forced participation in the program ran “afoul of the prohibition against the state’s favoring religion in general over non-religion” and violated the rights guaranteed him by the Constitution.

“This is a textbook test of religious freedom,” said legal scholar and Princeton University Provost Christopher Eisgruber. “It couldn’t be much plainer.”

“It’s really about forcing someone to take part in religion in order to stay out of jail, and there’s really not a whole lot of disagreement at that level,” added Eisgruber, co-author of a 2007 book, “Religious Freedom and the Constitution.”

“It’s well established … that forced religion is not acceptable,” concurred Michael Bien, a San Francisco attorney who advocates for prisoners’ and parolees’ constitutional rights. “Religion is not the only way to address substance abuse problems.”

Corrections spokeswoman Terry Thornton said the department respects “the personal and spiritual beliefs of parolees and we act in accordance with all federal and state laws.

“But, since this matter is still in litigation the department can’t comment any further,” she added.

Monetary damages are to be determined, either by settlement or trial. A jury trial is scheduled to begin June 22.

“Barry Hazle took a stand that he shouldn’t be forced to take part in a religious program that conflicted with his beliefs and he was sent to prison for doing so,” his attorney, John Heller, said this week. “Judge Burrell’s ruling is an important step in setting things straight, and I look forward to obtaining the relief that Barry deserves for this violation.”

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