An atheist who spent a year in a California prison for methamphetamine possession charges in 2007 was awarded nearly $2 million on Wednesday as part of a settlement related to a lawsuit claiming that his religious freedom was violated when he refused to participate in a court ordered rehab program with a religious spin.
In a case that has dragged on for seven years, Barry Hazle Jr. charged the state of California and a contractor with infringing on his religious freedoms by ordering him to spend 90 days in a rehab facility that required him to submit to a "higher power" as a part of its 12-step program.
The treatment program at Empire Recovery Center was modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous — the 12-step sobriety plan focused on spiritual and character development but has nondenominational religious undertones. Hazle objected to the program and requested secular treatment, but he said he was told that Empire was the only approved center in Shasta County where he lives.
"They told me, 'Anything can be your higher power. Fake it till you make it,'" he said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Hazle still refused to receive treatment at the facility, and was subsequently thrown in jail for 100 days.
Hazle's multi-million dollar settlement with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and state contractor WestCare California comes after a 2010 district court judge ruled that his religious liberty had been violated. A further 2013 9th Circuit Court decision determined that Hazel deserved compensation.
"I'm thrilled to finally have this case settled," Hazle told theRecord Searchlight. "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."
Alan Brownstein, a constitutional law scholar at University of California Davis School of Law, told VICE News that this was a "pretty straight forward" case, and that unlike more complicated cases regarding religious freedoms, most church and state scholars are likely to agree on the decision. In Hazle's case, Brownstein said the state violated both religious exemption and establishment clauses outlined in the constitution.
"It's hard to see what argument the state could offer to explain why they were requiring someone to attend a program with a clear religious spin to it," he said. "An individual who does not believe in God has a freedom not to be required to participate in religious activity."
Sally Gordon, a church and state scholar at University of Pennsylvania, told VICE News that, "this settlement will take its place in a very long string of incidents" regarding religious freedoms and statutes in US prisons.
According to Gordon, a case similar to Hazle's took place in Iowa in 2006, when a judge shut down a prison's bible study program known as the God Squad. It was determined that religious freedoms were violated because state money funded the program, and in some instances prisoners that attended the program were given preferential treatment.
She also cited a case, heard by the Supreme Court on October 7, regarding a Muslim inmate in Arkansas who wants to wear a beard — something banned by the state due to security concerns.
"If we're talking about the religious right of inmates, that's a more difficult decision, because a prison has obvious security concerns," Brownstein said, explaining how these could outweigh an inmate's religious freedoms. According to him, the court will almost certainly side with the inmate in the Arkansas case because he is only petitioning for a half-inch beard — something he said is physically impossible of hiding a weapon or other item of concern.
Gordon said cases like Hazle's are increasingly important in a country with such a large population of inmates.
"The US jails a higher estimated proportion of its population than any other country on the planet," she said. "You constantly have people cycling in and out of the prison industrial complex and many of them need some kind of support."
According to Gordon, those individuals should have the option of support that does not violate their religious freedoms.
"In fact, religion is one of the few aspects a person retains while a person is incarcerated, and even then it is limited by security issues," she said. As Gordon commented on the importance of letting the prisoner grow a short beard, "When there's very little you can do that isn't absolutely positively conformist, every little piece of liberty means so much more."
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