Atheist Jailed 100 Days for Refusing Religious Drug Rehab Wins $2 Million Settlement

This is why the separation of church and state is so critical.

A drug addict devoted to overcoming his addiction is accountable to many people, but God shouldn't be one of them.

It was the same sentiment shared by Barry Hazle when he sued his parole officer, California officials and Westcare California after his probation was revoked for a 2006 conviction for possession of methamphetamine. After being incarcerated for a year, Hazle was required to participate in a 90-day 12-step drug rehabilitation program with religious overtones.

Hazle says he told officials his atheism prevented him from participating in the program and insisted on a non-religious option, which he didn't get. During the 12-step program, staff found Hazle "disruptive," though in a "congenial way," and reported him to his parole officer. Hazle was sent to jail for 100 days for violating his parole. He ended up suing in a federal lawsuit for wrongful incarceration in violation of his religious liberty. It would take seven years and two court rulings for his lawyers to announce Tuesday that Hazle won a $1.95 million settlement against the state of California and its contractor, WestCare California.

"I just want to make sure that somebody else doesn’t have to go through this kind of thing,” Hazle said after the settlement was announced.

Though justice was finally served for Hazle, the case reveals that much of America has yet to respect the separation of church and state. In 2011, a Tulsa police officer disobeyed his commanding officer's order to attend an event organized by the Islamic Society of Tulsa. Though Captain Paul Fields was assured he wouldn't have to participate in any religious programming, he refused to attend, citing a "moral dilemma." A federal appellate court disagreed, saying his claim held no merit.

Then there is the case of the Indiana state trooper who asked a woman if she accepted Jesus Christ as her savior during a traffic stop earlier this month.

There are many more cases of those who violate people's right to religious liberty while representing state interests, but this is as much a societal issue as it is civil rights. We still live in a nation where a politician's road to the White House requires him or her to profess a love for God that is hardly required to do the job.

There is also a lot of hypocrisy among those who believe Americans should embrace God, or more specifically, the "right" God. Back in 2012 when Mitt Romney was running for president, many Christians were suspicious of his Mormon faith, even though a study released that year reported that Mormonism was the fastest growing religion in more than half of the United States. That election cycle revealed that even a man like Romney who wore his faith on both sleeves wasn't serving the "right" kind of God.

This is why the separation of church and state is so critical. America has enough class, racial and economic hierarchies to include religion in the the mix. As Think Progress noted in its story on Hazle, the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1947 case of Everson v. Board of Ed. of Ewing made it clear that Americans aren't required to serve any God:

"Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance....In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and State.”

Hopefully, Hazle's case adds one more brick to the wall that can protect us from those who want to use their religious views to suppress our religious liberties. If atheists become the majority population someday, believers will surely hope the same wall of separation will still be standing strong to protect their rights too.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior editor at AlterNet. Follow him on Twitter @Russian_Starr.

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