Court: California must compensate atheist ex-con

Aug. 23, 2013 at 7:48 PM
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SAN FRANCISCO, Aug. 23 (UPI) -- A federal court ordered California to compensate an atheist parolee who was returned to prison when he disrupted a court-ordered, faith-based, 12-step program.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously Friday a jury should determine the amount of compensatory damages for Barry A. Hazle Jr. because California violated his constitutional rights by returning him to prison. The appeals court panel also ordered a district judge in Sacramento to revisit the question of issuing an injunction preventing California from compelling parolees to participate in treatment programs based on a belief in God or a higher power, the Los Angeles Times reported.

Hazle, a drug offender, was ordered to spend 90 days in a residential 12-step program when he was paroled, but he told officials he is an atheist and requested a secular program. Officials told him none was available so he had to go to the religion-oriented program -- where staff workers said Hazle had been disruptive "in a congenial way."

The behavior prompted state corrections officials to revoke Hazle's parole and send him back behind bars for 100 days.

Hazle filed a lawsuit and a federal judge in Sacramento found his constitutional rights had been violated and ordered a jury to determine monetary damages but the jury decided not to grant Hazle any compensation.

"Given the indisputable fact of actual injury resulting from Hazle's unconstitutional imprisonment, and the district judge's finding that the state defendants were liable for that injury, an award of compensatory damages was mandatory," 9th Circuit Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in Friday's ruling.

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