An atheist who was forced to participate in a drug rehabilitation program based on the “12 Steps” is entitled to financial compensation, ruled a three-judge panel of the United States Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on August 23.

Barry J. Hazle, Jr., is an avowed atheist who was arrested and convicted on a charge of possession of methamphetamine. He was paroled in 2007. As a condition of his release, he was required to participate in a drug rehabilitation program. Hazle objected to the so-called “12 Steps” program the rehab was based on, as half of the steps require belief in God:

Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.
Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.
Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.

Hazle asked his parole officer for non-religious options for drug rehabilitation, such as the Secular Organizations for Sobriety, but none were available through the state at that time. He entered the 12-step program as ordered, but continued to object that his First Amendment right to be free of government-mandated religion was being violated. In response, the State of California re-arrested Hazle and placed him back into prison for 100 days.

Hazle sued, citing long-held precedents against forcing prisoners and parolees into religious services. The district court ruled in Hazle’s favor; however, the jury in the case decided Hazle was not entitled to any financial compensation for his troubles.

The Ninth Circuit has now decided that jury was wrong. “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,” wrote Judge Stephen Reinhardt.

The case now returns to the district court in Sacramento to decide the amount of damages Hazle is entitled to. The Ninth Circuit also asked the court to consider preventing state officials from requiring attendance in religious 12-step programs for future parolees.