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First Amendment Rights Violated by 12 Step Program Coercion

October, 2014

A California man was recently awarded close to $2 million dollars for being imprisoned for 100 days for a violation of his parole. The parole violation? Barry Hazle, an atheist, was compelled to complete a 12 Step program which included "surrendering to a higher power" as well as saying prayers and participating in religious activities. Hazle requested a secular alternative program but, as there were no non-12 Step programs contracted by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) in the area, his probation officer compelled him to attend the residential12 Step program upon release. Hazle attended the 12 Step program but didn't fully 'cooperate' and he was sent back to prison for 100 days for his noncompliance. (Hazle v. Crofoot 9th Cir. 2013) Hazle brought forth a suit claiming his First Amendment rights were violated. The initial verdict confirmed his First Amendment rights were violated but the jury denied any monetary damages. After an appeals process in the Ninth Circuit, the verdict was eventually overturned and an award was found to be mandatory as Hazle was deprived of his civil liberties by imprisonment. While the case was going through the 9th Circuit, CDCR changed the rules so there is no longer a requirement that parolees complete a 12 Step program as a condition of their parole. As this case was decided before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the ruling made in California will now additionally cover the states of Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona as well as the U.S. territories of Guam and the Northern Mariana Islands.

On page 6 of the 9th Circuit's Opinion is a sentence that stipulates that all references in the Opinion to a 12 Step program will mean a "religion based treatment program". There are references to the lower court's own findings that it is "uncommonly well-settled case law" that a First Amendment violation must be found when a "state coerces an individual to attend a religion based drug or alcohol treatment program" as under Inouye v. Kenna (9th Cir. 2007). Why are these statements important? The courts are finally beginning to accept as fact that 12 Step programs, whether cloaked in God or a "higher power", are inevitably religion based and that forcing someone to complete such a program, when it is against their belief system, is a First Amendment violation without question.

As Mr. Hazle was attending the residential 12 Step program, what caused his parole violation and incarceration? Mr. Hazle committed the unpardonable crime of refusing to "submit to his higher power"! Mr. Hazle informed the prison, his parole officer, parole board and the rehab program of his objections to attending a 12 Step religion based program. He was told the CDCR had contracted with a service provider, Westcare, who, as a matter of policy, didn't sign up any non-12 Step providers and he, therefore, had no choice.

Mr. Hazle attended the 12 Step program while he filed an appeal to the parole board to change the condition of his parole to allow for a nonsecular rehab program as advised by his parole officer, Mr. Crofoot. Mr. Hazle wasn't trying to get out of attending a rehab program at all but to attend one that didn't challenge his personal core beliefs. The 12 Step program, Empire, reported Hazle was "disruptive, though in a congenial way to the staff as well as other students" and his demeanor was "sort of passive-aggressive". Hardly a damning indictment of his behavior and worthy of incarceration but there is little tolerance in 12 Step programs for divergence from the religious tenets of AA. When the California parole board refused to allow Hazle to change his condition of parole, they sent him back to prison with this reply:

It would behoove you to take advantage of the tools that are offered to you to help you with your addiction, behavior, and adjustment to society. Per your Agent of Record, Mr. Crofoot, he has made attempts to locate treatment facilities to accommodate your preference, per Mr. Crofoot, Empire Recovery was the best suited for you. Your negative behavior toward staff caused you to be discharged from that program leaving your Agent of Record no other choice but to return you to CRC for further treatment. Therefore, your request is denied.

Mr. Hazle informed the right people of his objections, filed the right papers, and even attended the 12 Step program while waiting for the California parole board to grind out a decision. He was incarcerated because his objections to complying with a 12 Step program didn't work in a system where alternatives aren't provided and free thinking isn't tolerated. Since when did violating a man's First Amendment rights become reduced to "accommodating a preference" as noted above in the CDCR Parole Board's denial of Mr. Hazle's request? Fortunately the 9th Circuit has a different view of First Amendment rights and religious coercion.

The paternalistic nature of the CDCR was obviously well married to the equally paternalistic views of 12 Step programs where "submitting to a higher power" was necessary and unquestioned-that is until Mr. Hazle came along. The lack of 12 Step program alternatives and his refusal to submit to beliefs not his own temporarily deprived a man of his freedom. Ultimately, Mr. Hazle's refusal to accept the current system and to fight back in a court of law has established the rights of people in 9 US states and 2 territories to continue to believe as they choose and not be coerced into religious beliefs sanctioned by the state. Hazle v. Crofoot continues to uphold that 12 Step programs as religious based state mandated treatment can't be demanded of an individual anymore than the government demanding one's attendance at a church, mosque, or synagogue. 12 Step programs, as religious based treatment, are not a choice that can be compelled without the provision of secular alternatives. Hazle v. Crofoot and Inouye v. Kenna are precedents for other US states to adopt to preserve the same freedoms of thought and religion without governmental influence and sanctions as our forefathers intended.

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