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A three-judge panel of the US 9th Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that a lower court judge erred when he denied a drug offender and atheist a new trial after a jury awarded him no damages, Religion Newsreported.
Barry A. Hazle Jr., was serving time for drug possession in 2007 when as a condition of his parole he was required to participate in a 12-step program that recognizes a “higher power.” Hazle, a long-term atheist and member of secular humanist groups, informed the parole officer that he did not wish to participate in the program but was told here were no secular treatments available.
When Hazle refused to undertake the program he was arrested for violating parole and returned to state prison for an additional 100 days, prompting him to sue on the grounds that his First Amendment rights had been violated.
The court ruled that Hazle be awarded a new trial for damages and compensation for his loss of liberty, in a decision which may have wider implications. The court also ordered a Sacramento district judge to consider preventing state officials from requiring parolees attend rehab programs with a focus on “god” or a “higher power”:
“The jury simply was not entitled to refuse to award any damages for Hazle’s undisputable — and undisputed — loss of liberty, and its verdict to the contrary must be rejected,” Judge Stephen Reinhardt held.