A Shasta County atheist sued top state corrections officials Monday, claiming that his constitutional rights were violated when he was returned to prison after objecting to participation in a program with religious overtones as a condition of parole.
Barry A. Hazle Jr., 40, was released from prison in February 2007 after doing a year for drug possession. He was required to complete a 90-day drug treatment program and was assigned to one in Shasta County.
The Redding computer technician says he objected several times to "coerced participation" in a program based on the 12-step recovery method originally developed by Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, according to the lawsuit filed in Sacramento federal court.
The 12-step program required "acknowledgment of the existence of a supernatural God, … deference to a monotheistic 'higher power,' and participation in prayer," the suit alleges.
Hazle says he asked to be reassigned to a secular recovery program and finally delivered a written appeal to his parole officer, Mitch Crofoot. But, he says, Crofoot told him "all of the programs in Northern California are 12-step programs."
Three days after Crofoot received the appeal, Hazle was called out of one of the program classes and arrested for violating parole, the suit alleges. He was sent back to prison for four months.
He "was jailed for standing up for his constitutional rights, plain and simple," said Hazle's lawyer, John Heller of Chapman, Popik & White in San Francisco.
"The First Amendment … guarantees that the state cannot require anyone to participate in these types of religious activities, nor penalize those that resist.
"Courts across the nation have recognized that the 12-step method is religious in nature," Heller added.
The suit claims the policy requiring parolees to take part in religious-based rehabilitation is an unlawful use of state money. It seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages for Hazle and an injunction prohibiting such use of state funds in the future.
The defendants include Matthew Cate, secretary of the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation; Scott Kernan, the department's chief deputy secretary of adult operations; Tim Hoffman, director of the department's Division of Adult Parole Operations; Crofoot; and Crofoot's supervisor, Brenda Wilding.
"This should never have happened, and we're hoping to make sure it never happens again," said attorney Michael Scheibli of Redding, who also represents Hazle.
The California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation did not respond to requests for comment.