Atheist punished for rejecting 12 Step program gets $2 million


By Hemant Mehta
Originally published on October 14, 2014 at The Friendly Atheist

In February of 2007, after spending time in prison for drug possession, Barry A. Hazle Jr. was finally released on parole.

Parole came with a few strings attached, though. Hazle had to attend a 90-day drug treatment program which, in his case, involved the Twelve-Step program most commonly associated with Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. As we’ve discussed on this site before, several of those steps include references to God and submitting to a “higher power.”

Barry Hazle Jr.

Barry Hazle Jr.

Hazle — an atheist — wanted no part of that, so he asked to be reassigned to a secular treatment program. Even as he began attending the Twelve-Step classes, he objected to them. Three days after his parole officer received the appeal, Hazle “was called out of a program class and arrested for violating parole… He was sent back to prison for four months.”

It made absolutely no sense. That same year, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals specifically ruled “that a parolee [couldn’t] be ordered to attend [Alcoholics Anonymous] meetings as a condition of staying out of prison.”

A little over a year ago, there was some resolution to this issue from that same Court of Appeals:

A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.

“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,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt, a Jimmy Carter appointee, wrote for the panel.

The court also demanded that a district judge in Sacramento reconsider whether state officials could “[require] parolees to attend treatment programs that emphasize God or a ‘higher power.’”

At the time, the amount of compensation Hazle would receive was in the hands of a different jury. And today, we learned what that amount was… and it’s staggering:

The California government and a nonprofit will pay a Shasta County atheist nearly $2 million for violating his civil rights when he was sent back to prison for taking issue with a religious drug-treatment program while on parole.

Barry Hazle Jr. and his attorney, John G. Heller, announced the settlement this morning at a press conference in San Francisco.

The money is meant to compensate for the violation of Hazle’s First Amendment religious rights, as well as to pay for the legal costs of the lengthy court battle. Heller noted that the prison where Hazle was sent also was “overcrowded and dangerous for both inmates and guards,” according to a statement by former Gov. Arnrold Schwarzenegger, so the suit included compensation for “physical and emotional symptoms and injuries,” as well.

 The settlement of the six-year court case is made up of $1 million from the state and $925,000 from Westcare California Inc., the contractor that offered only a religious rehabilitation program for parolees such as Hazle.

It’s hard to overstate how important this victory is. It should’ve been obvious to state officials (and Hazle’s parole officer) that they couldn’t mandate anyone to go to a religious drug treatment program. It should’ve been obvious that they couldn’t punish someone for not wanting to attend that particular kind of program. Yet, they tried to coerce Hazle into going there, anyway.

He fought back, he was right, and he (finally) got fair compensation after everything the state put him through. More importantly, it means that no other prisoner or parolee will have to fight the same battle in the future.

24 Responses

  1. Ted D. says:

    I think what the pro-AA’ers are missing is that this has nothing to do with whether AA is good or bad. We have a constitution that guarantees freedom from state coercion to participate in religious activity. Period. A person’s religious beliefs matters not one iota. If a Catholic was coerced into a Catholic program it would still be unconstitutional. Nine of the 12 District Courts have determined that AA is religious in nature. Since we are a country of laws, once that determination has been made, personal opinion doesn’t matter as far as legal matters are concerned. I am not anti AA. Personally, I don’t think that AA should change one bit. On the contrary, they should embrace their origin in the Puritanical Christian Oxford group and be honest about their religious content. That way a person can make an informed decision if AA is for them. Door knobs, Good Orderly Direction or Group Of Drunks are not mentioned anywhere in the Big Book. Instead, it is very specific about what God is: An interventionist deity who if you pray is capable of one specific thing: Keeping you sober for 24 hours. Chapter four makes it very clear that AA’s suggestion for atheists and agnostics is simple and straight forward: Don’t be one. Accept God as He is described in the Big Book. If you are an atheist or agnostic and you like going to AA, that’s great. But that is a decision for you to make. As a pilot for a major US airline who voluntarily sought help through my company’s Employee Program when I was using alcohol (light drinker previously, never had any issues whatsoever in the prior 52 years of my life) when I began to use alcohol to numb myself from a series of painful events in my life, I can honestly say that coerced AA is hell. In my case I have been forced to convince people that I believe in things things that I don’t for years, with many years to go. In other words, I’m living a lie and it has taken a tremendous psychological toll. The past few years have without a doubt been the worst of my life. I have met many great people who seem happy in AA and have beliefs that do not conflict with AA doctrine. I’m just not one of them.

  2. Roger says:

    I agree that the fellowship is, at its roots, “one alcoholic talking to another alcoholic”. Group therapy, if you will. AA also has a “suggested” program called the 12 Steps. If they work for someone, fine. If the Eightfold Path of Buddhism works for someone else, that’s fine too. I think we in AA should celebrate the many paths to recovery, all of them. But the 12 Steps will always be associated with AA, and so I think we ought therefore be able to work them “as we understand them”, including in a secular fashion, if that is our chosen route to recovery. That’s all.

  3. Duncan says:

    Roger I wonder why you put so much emphasis on the 12 Steps. I can see no reason why we need them or why we need alternatives to them. Surely the first stage of free thinking is being left to think for yourself, so why the guidelines?

    AA is not the 12 Steps or indeed any of the so called sacred texts but a Fellowship to help you stop drinking and to stay stopped.


  4. Laurie A says:

    Quite so, Duncan. In July 2007 I wrote in ‘Share’, the GB AA magazine, about changes in the fellowship since the 1970s, ‘… When speakers close with the serenity prayer they sometimes invite us to join in “using the word God as you understand Him – OR WILL COME TO UNDERSTAND HIM”. They don’t realise how patronising that sounds to the alcoholic who has no desire to understand God. Sometimes the serenity prayer card is thrust in front of the newcomer with the expectation that they will recite the words too – at their very first meeting! And what about the standing, holding hands and chanting… Even old-timers find it hard to resist this emotional coercion… So what on earth is the bewildered newcomer to do? … Where and when did it all start? Was there a Conference recommendation? Where can it be found in AA literature? I suspect it began in treatment centres where patients are encouraged to engage in such bonding exercises. Then it spread through the fellowship like a virus. And don’t start me on the interminable readings – Preamble, Steps, Traditions, lengthy excerpts from the Big Book, the Promises, Declaration of Unity, Just for Today card, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Magna Carta etc (I made up the last two, but you get my drift). How long before someone adds the 12 Concepts to this litany…’
    The aacultwatch website gives examples of even more extreme interpretations of the program by members who think AA lost its way it when it parted from from the Oxford Group.

  5. Duncan says:

    Hi Michael, I think you should remember that AA is now an international organization. So the laws to which the article refers apply only in the USA.

    I really don’t know why you see the Steps as being untouchable. The 75 years of AA or so are hardly ancient history. What is more is that AA has changed too in the past. What about the years before the Big Book was written? Of course the Steps, etc. came even later, so what history are we talking about? Plenty of this stuff has been written about on this site before so no need for me to go into any more detail.

    I agree with Laurie in that, in the UK certainly, Treatment Centers have hi-jacked the programme but I am certain that AA was also guilty. (Again this has been written about before.)

    I remember when I got involved with AA in 1977 that in most meetings religion was hardly ever mentioned. I was an atheist and there was no trouble at all with God. Yes there were some Big Book Bashers about but really they were a rarity. Yes some did believe in God but that was a personal thing and Atheists, Agnostics and all others just got on with the job of staying sober and helping others to achieve the same.

    Meetings then were simple. We started with the preamble and finished with the serenity prayer and if you did not believe in God then you just did not say the first word of that prayer. It seemed to me to be a happy medium and as an atheist it was OK by me. Again the saying of the Lord’s Prayer were very rare indeed and I have never ever heard that said in Manchester Meetings.

    These days it is different although it does vary from meeting to meeting. Now they hold hands at the end of the meeting. Usually the 12 Steps and 12 Traditions are read. Most meetings also read something from the Big Book and something from As Bill Sees It and in some meetings they also read from other “Sacred Texts”. Boring, and what is more it discourages Atheists and Agnostics and also many Christians.

    Of course I don’t take part in all of this ritual. This means that I cannot chair meetings. So yet another way of keeping Atheists quiet.

    In the late 70’s we used to talk about American meetings and how Holy they were. It was much more relaxed here in the UK. We really had no need for Atheist meetings. (of course I am generalising as some meetings were a bit heavy on the HP.)

    At that time people who were hospitalised for being alcoholic were sent to ordinary wards at no cost. However this began to lessen as more De-tox wards closed. Then we began to get agencies such as The Priories, etc. and more and more private agencies. This was when the 12 Step movement began in the UK. Whether AA was involved or not I don’t care but AA did not question this movement. So yes the professionals have hi-jacked the 12 Step programme in the UK.

    So Michael I am not going anywhere. I belong in AA.


  6. John O says:

    Thanks Michael for the thoughtful look at what A.A. should be. I too have trouble with the idea of watering down A.A. so it’s just a bull session, so that nobody is offended. And that maybe we should let A.A. have its program and literature for what seems to be the vast majority that believe in a loving prayer-answering favor-dispensing deity. As long as we can have our separate agnostic/atheist groups (which are, incidentally — unlike traditional A.A. groups or any explicitely Christian ones — true to A.A.’s “not religious” claim).

    As a side note, A.A. is very much involved in promoting, aiding, and abetting government-coerced attendance. You can search the site for “Corrections Professionals” or “Committee on Cooperation with the Professional Community (C.P.C.)”.

    Or the pamphlet “Cooperating with Court, D.W.I. and Similar Programs” (MG-05), where it is suggested that members create local Cooperation With the Professional Community (C.P.C.) committees and provide the courts with a list of open meetings. And that pamphlet suggests ways that groups and members can help enforce court-ordered attendance, by signing attendance slips for example, and even suggesting other schemes for verifying coercee attendance for groups that don’t want to sign attendance slips (See section “E. Proof of attendance at A.A. meetings.”). In other words, enrolling A.A. groups and members as government agents.

    “Attraction rather than promotion” has always been more of a wonderful-sounding slogan than reality, just like “spiritual but not religious”.

  7. Roger says:

    Things change and evolve, Michael. The results needn’t be cataclysmic, as you suggest.
    That applies to AA too. Because something was written on paper in 1939 doesn’t mean it is carved in stone for eternity. Otherwise women wouldn’t have the vote. And gays, lesbians and the transgendered wouldn’t be allowed to get married. Many years ago the first atheist in AA, Jim Burwell, wrote a piece called “The Evolution of Alcoholics Anonymous”. AA can change; it can evolve. Something that does not evolve to meet the challenges of a new day risks stinking to high Heaven (pun intended). In fact, AA can evolve to fully accept and respect the fact that unbelievers have their place in the recovery world.
    Enough said on this topic, for now.

  8. Michael says:

    I think this decision will be good for AA. I feel like the government has thrown a problem at AA so taxpayers don’t have to pay for treatment and prison. As far as I know, AA has not lobbied for or against this ‘business’. ‘Attraction rather than promotion’ is key to the success of the organization.

    I don’t think this will lead to any change within AA. The state and a treatment center are liable for the $2 million, not AA. It doesn’t feel like a victory for atheists in AA. It will probably lead to recovery centers providing a secular alternative and this is a victory for atheism at large and for anyone concerned with the separation of church and state.

    I believe in most of the issues I’ve come across on this website but I part ways with a belief that an alternative 12 steps should be allowed to replace the traditional ones at an AA sanctioned meeting. It’s a can of worms that cannot be opened. I believe that atheist/agnostic meetings have every right to exist within AA but the literature can’t be changed. I see an atheist/agnostic meeting as a safe place to practice AA however a person sees fit and to receive recommendations for alternative literature. To speak against the steps if they want but the steps and the rest of the literature need to remain unchanged.

    Fundamentalist Christians also have their own version of the steps, they’re not allowed to replace the traditional ones and still be listed in a meeting schedule. They meet at their churches, with no recognition from AA. A move like that could destroy the program in certain regions where fundamentalist Christianity is pervasive.

    I believe that AA needs to be more inclusive of atheists/agnostics. The recent brochure is a failure, a lost opportunity, but I think the best solution for the long term is for atheists/agnostics to start their own 12 step organization like so many before. NA, Al-anon, ACA, etc. The literature exists already. With the outcome of this lawsuit, it is a good opportunity to introduce a separate 12 step organization. Treatment centers are going to want an easy solution to this problem and I don’t think it’s up to AA to provide it. Atheists and agnostics also want a solution to the religiosity in AA but changing the very nature of the program is a lost cause. All we can hope for is more respect and tolerance and that’s worth fighting for but I see no reason to not work towards a permanent solution.

  9. John O says:

    Thanks Roger.

    For me, yes, I get that in A.A., according to the literature, one can have any conception of God, or no God or higher power for that matter.

    But to me, almost all conventional meetings, and literature, are endless proselytization about a loving prayer-answering favor-dispensing deity – one who will restore us to sanity, remove our shortcomings, manage our lives, care for us, love us, listen to our prayers, give us power, and guide our groups. And that we pray to for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry it out. (This list from the 12 Steps and Tradition 2).

    So yes, I don’t have to believe any of this stuff. But to have to sit through it and hear it endlessly repeated – along with stories about certain “miracles” that only a supernatural being or force could have performed – just isn’t helpful to me, to put it mildly.

    Or to have it suggested that I read “We Agnostics” in the Big Book – and find it hurling insults at agnostics as “vain”, “fooling ourselves”, “prejudiced”, “perverse”, and “obstinate” – did nothing positive for me either.

  10. MarkInTexas says:

    We are well past the time for silence, hiding, and living falsely before our fellows. We owe it to the next nonbeliever who comes in, to stand up, open up, and take our sets as co-equal members of our groups and the Fellowship.

  11. bob k says:

    There is no way of KNOWING precisely how many alcoholics have left AA after a year, a month, or a single meeting owing to the overt religiosity. And how many others have eschewed it completely based on what they have heard from others.

    I suspect these numbers are astronomical! There are several within my own acquaintance. Most just leave silently, without comment. When I receive poor service or poor food in a restaurant, I simply don’t go back. The foolish restauranteur sees the lack of complaints as evidence that there IS no problem. Even as he slides into bankruptcy.

    I think we are foolish restauranteurs if we think we don’t have a very real, and escalating problem. Tens of millions of North Americans have stopped going to church. We need to dump some of our own “churchiness.”

    Before it’s too late!!

  12. Roger says:

    All of that does not change, by one single iota, the religious content of the Steps. “Ed” may have stayed, but how many have walked out the door? “Aye, there’s the rub.” (Shakespeare)

  13. Tommy H says:

    Well said, Roger.

  14. Laurie A says:

    ‘First there was the fire, then the words about the fire, then the arguments about the words about the fire.’ (Richard Rohr). ‘The elders took Ed [the atheist] aside. They said firmly, “You can’t talk like this around here. You’ll have to quit or get out.” With great sarcasm [heaven forfend!] Ed came back at them. “Now do tell! Is that so?” He reached over to a bookshelf and took up a sheaf of papers. On top of them lay a foreword to the book Alcoholics Anonymous, then under preparation. He read aloud, “The only requirement for AA membership is a desire to stop drinking.” Relentlessly, Ed went on, “When you guys wrote that sentence, did you mean it or, or didn’t you?” Dismayed, the elders looked at one another, for they knew he had them cold. So Ed stayed.’ (12+12, Tradition Three). Bill W said every AA has the privilege of interpreting the program according to their own outlook and experience. Which is only stating the obvious as we have no way of expelling someone for their AA beliefs or practice. Will the fellowship adopt a secular version of the Steps/Traditions? Since it would require a two-thirds (three-quarters?) vote by all the groups in the world for it to happen that seems vanishingly unlikely. I sometimes say to my Book banging AA friends, ‘How on earth did we get sober before Joe and Charlie?’ I also wonder how our dogmatic atheist members ever got sober in our ‘religious’ program.
    Love, peace and light …

  15. Roger says:

    As usual, you are very, very selective in your quotes, Laurie. You don’t mention that the word “God” is used repeatedly in the Steps. You ignore the fact that “How It Works” in the Big Book ends with “God could and would if He were sought”. Treatment centres haven’t hijacked the program: as it stands the 12 Steps are a religious program and the Courts are right in ruling so.

    Now there is a way forward, but there is little evidence of AA moving in that direction. The latest pamphlet “Many Paths to Spirituality” has a Jew reciting the Lord’s Prayer and an atheist using the 12 Steps “just as they are written”. Pathetic, to say the least. What the fellowship needs to do is accept versions of the Steps without the God bit – there are twenty such versions in The Little Book. And rather than booting agnostic groups out of AA Intergroups, these groups should both be welcomed and encouraged. That would be a start.

  16. Laurie A says:

    ‘The only requirement for membership (of AA) is an honest desire to stop drinking. We are not allied with any particular faith, sect or denomination …’ (Big Book, first edition foreword). AA ‘neither endorses nor opposes any causes’ [including Christianity]. (AA Grapevine). ‘AA does not demand that you believe anything. All of its 12 Steps are but suggestions’ (12+12 Step Two). Treatment centers have hi-jacked the program and turned it into a coercive regime, and as AA opposes no-one the fellowship does not enter into public controversy about these issues, so of course the program and fellowship are constantly misrepresented. Seems to me if this guy had been offered a secular program (thin on the ground) there would be no story. I can’t be kicked out of AA because I doubt the existence of God(s); friends, let’s not deny recovery to problem drinkers who do so believe.

  17. Adam N. says:

    Well, I for one am grateful for the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and org’s such as the ACLU. We’d have all been strung up or head-on-spikes in 95% of other times & places! Or, maybe, as I have in AA for so long, we’d just keep our heads down and our voices silent…

  18. Glenna R. says:

    Roger: Thanks for getting this good news story out. It is an astonishing if completely warranted news story. It would be nice if atheists were no longer punished, but I’m sure the circle will be broken many times, shunning will still go on and some people in AA will not be as equal as others as in Animal Farm, “Everyone is equal but some are more equal than others”. Thanks. Much appreciated. Glenna

  19. crescentdave says:

    This ruling is the natural and inevitable progression established by three earlier court decisions. In the analysis portion of Inouye v. Kemna (2007), the United States Court of Appeals, 9th Circuit reviewed Ricky Inouye’s complaint against his parole officer Mark Nanamori, who mandated he attend AA or face prison time:

    First, Nanamori acted in his official state capacity as a parole officer to order Inouye into AA/NA. That the state did not run the program itself is ‘of no moment,’ as the state ordered participation.  

    Second, the action was clearly coercive: Inouye could be imprisoned if he did not attend and he was, in fact, ultimately returned to prison in part because of his refusal to participate in the program.

    Addressing Kerr’s third prong is also quite straightforward. Our record on the content of the AA/NA program here is limited to Inouye’s allegations that AA/NA is based in “a higher power.” Nanamori does not, however, dispute that the program was substantially based in religion, and presents no evidence that the program differed from the usual AA/NA program, described by the Second Circuit in Warner as comprising “intensely religious events,” and by the Seventh Circuit in Kerr as “fundamentally based on a religious concept of a Higher Power.

    As such, on this summary judgment record and given the lack of dispute between the parties in question, we have no trouble deciding that the third prong of Kerr’s Establishment Clause test has been met as well.

    Reviewing the legal record involving similar issues, the court found

    By 2001, two circuit courts, at least three district courts, and two state supreme courts had all considered whether prisoners or parolees could be forced to attend religion-based treatment programs. Their unanimous conclusion was that such coercion was unconstitutional.

    Based on this

    “march of unanimity,”

    the court reversed the district court’s grant of summary judgment, asserting “Nanamori does not have qualified immunity.”

    The clarity of this ruling left the door wide open for any state agency to be sued if its representatives required attendance at a 12-Step based facility or program.

    AA and NA and other 12 step groups can continue to insist they are not religions, but saying so does not make it so. Linda R., in her excellent essay, The Courts, AA and Religion, quotes Aldous Huxley: “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

  20. Adam N. says:

    Seems like it should be pretty straight-forward. We have, as a nation,the basic principles of separation of church and state. We also have freedom to practice whatever religion, and presumably that at least technically also means none, that we choose. Nice. Good Constitution! So, shouldn’t it be against the law for courts to mandate participation in 12 step groups as they are currently constituted, i.e. with their obvious christian/religious emphasis? What am I missing. I am so naive…

  21. Tommy H says:

    Well said.

  22. Dan L says:

    I think we have to be careful with this one. Just because I can do AA and attempt to ignore the annoying theists doesn’t mean everybody can. I am sober by the grace of whatever…the people who helped me probably. Certainly not by somebody’s vision of a supernatural being who is “…our father and we are his children.” I do not “defy” god. As far as I am concerned he/she just is not there at all. Nothing. Nada. I am perfectly okay with that. I did, however, just return from a meeting where the majority of folks are evangelical christians and while it is usually not bad, today it was sheer torture. A couple of people were tearfully declaring their subservience to the will of some Iron Age skygod and proclaiming how he led them to victory over some satan guy.
    I would hate to see some person forced to put up with that just because I have learned (the hard way) to do so.
    On the other hand I really don’t want to be labelled as a christian or a religious person because the law of the land says I am. This has already caused me a lot of grief.

  23. Eric K. says:

    The 12-step monopoly getting what it deserves.

  24. Mimi says:

    WOW – and I thought I had it bad with one group – that I can walk into or out of, gave me a hard time with the whole god thing. I think I am going to state I am a secularist – enough of atheism and agnosticism, even. LOL

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