Atheist Punished in Rehab Deserves Damages

     (CN) - An avowed atheist who was jailed for refusing to participate in a 12-step treatment program deserves a new trial of his civil rights claims, the 9th Circuit ruled.
     Barry Hazle sued his parole officer, several California corrections officials and Westcare Corp. after they revoked his probation for a drug conviction because of his "congenial" refusal to recognize a higher power, as the 12-step recovery method requires.
     Hazle said he told officials several times about his atheism and reluctance to participate in religious treatment programs after pleading no-contest in 2006 to possession of methamphetamine. Nonetheless, in 2007 he was paroled to a 90-day residential program that offered only the 12 Steps, many of which call for explicit acceptance of God.
     When he refused to participate, staff reported Hazle to his parole officer, saying that he was being "disruptive, though in a congenial way, to the staff as well as other students," according to the ruling. Hazle then found himself back in prison for another 100 days.
     His federal civil rights action sought damages for false imprisonment, among other things. U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell in San Francisco found the defendants were indeed liable for depriving Hazle of his First Amendment rights and turned the issue over to a jury to determine the amount of damages.
     The jury awarded zero damages.
     Hazle shot back with a motion for a new trial, but was denied. A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit reversed Friday, finding that Hazle was entitled to something.
     "The district judge's finding of liability establishes that Hazle suffered actual injury when he was unconstitutionally incarcerated," Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote for the court. "Given this undisputed finding that Hazle's constitutional rights were violated, and applying the rule that the award of compensatory damages is mandatory when the existence of actual injury is beyond dispute, we hold that the district judge erred in refusing to hold that Hazle was, as a matter of law, entitled to compensatory damages. We therefore reverse the district judge's denial of Hazle's motion for a new trial."