Mandated attendance at “religion-based” programs found unconstitutional by US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals

Many Pathways to RecoveryImagine being imprisoned on drug-related charges and then finally being paroled — on the condition that you attend a treatment program that uses a religion-based (12-step) program. If you refuse to attend on the basis of your own personal beliefs which are not consistent with what is being taught in the 12-step program, your parole will be revoked and you will be sent back to prison to serve out your term. That’s exactly what happened to Barry A. Hazle in California.


February, 2007:
Hazle, an atheist, was “forced as a condition of parole to participate in a residential drug treatment program that required him to acknowledge a higher power.” Because of his beliefs, Hazle refused to participate in the 12-step program. As a result, his parole was revoked, and he spent an additional 100 days behind bars. Hazle sued California state officials, his parole officer, and the private company that contracted with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to provide drug treatment programs for parolees with drug-related convictions.

When Hazle’s case went to trial, the district court judge ruled that Hazle’s constitutional rights had indeed been violated by the revocation of his parole and his resulting imprisonment for 100 additional days. Nevertheless, the jury awarded no damages for the violation of Hazle’s rights.

August, 2013: The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, as a matter of law, the jury was required to award Hazle damages for the violation of his constitutional rights and that Hazle is entitled to a new trial to determine required damages. The original decision was reversed and remanded because of Hazle’s objection to participate in programs contrary to his personal beliefs.

The recovery center that was subcontracted “uses a 12-step recovery program, developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, that includes references to ‘God’ and to a higher power.” Court documents explained how the court would use the phrase “12-step program” in the rest of the court’s opinion. The court stated: “Hereinafter, a 12-step program will always refer to a religion-based treatment program.”

This case is one of many in recent years in which courts have ruled that it is a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution for a state to require someone to participate in a religion-based drug or alcohol treatment program as a condition of parole. (Inouye v. Kemba, 504 F.3d 705, 716 (9th Cir. 2007.)

Many pathways to recovery: When it comes to recovery, there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach. According to Faces and Voices of Recovery, “there are a growing number of pathways that people across our country are taking on their recovery journeys.” People of varying belief systems now have many options available when it comes to treatment programs and mutual aid support groups. Organizations such as SMART Recovery, Women for Sobriety, Life-Ring. SOS (Secular Organizations for Sobriety), and others offer valuable support and resources for many individuals.

SMART Recovery: SMART Recovery provides free, self-empowering, science-based mutual help groups. Participants learn tools for addiction recovery based on the latest scientific research. With 1000+ meetings world-wide, local SMART Recovery meetings are becoming easier and easier to find. For those who cannot find a local meeting in their area, Shari Allwood, Executive Director of SMART Recovery notes, “In addition to local meetings, we also have over 30 online meetings each week that provide verifications for those who are court ordered.”

SMART Recovery is based on accepted and proven psychological concepts and cognitive behavioral therapy and is an excellent secular recovery support option. As one volunteer facilitator puts it: “SMART doesn’t tell you what to think, it teaches you how to think and it works regardless of what other [religious] beliefs you hold.”

“SMART Recovery believes that individuals seeking recovery have the highest chance of success when they choose their own recovery pathways. Therefore we regard the decision of the 9th Circuit in Hazle vs. Crofoot, which supports choice in recovery, as a significant step forward.”

The decision of the 9th Circuit is a victory for all individuals seeking a choice of recovery pathways….and SMART is an excellent choice!

– Attorney Claire Johnson Saenz, SMART Recovery board member and member of its Court Outreach Team.

Source: Material for this post was provided by Mary Lou Cruz (SMART Recovery volunteer meeting facilitator since 2010) and David C. A.

SMART Recovery

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