One of the serious church/state problems in our criminal justice system is the routine sentencing of people to religious counseling and rehabilitation programs as a condition of probation or parole or even in lieu of incarceration. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals handed down a very important ruling on one such case last week:
A three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a jury should award Barry A. Hazle Jr., a drug offender, compensatory damages for his loss of freedom and could consider possible punitive and emotional distress damages as well.
The appeals court also ordered a district judge in Sacramento to reconsider whether to issue an injunction to prevent California officials from requiring parolees to attend treatment programs that emphasize God or a “higher power.”
After Hazle served a prison term, California ordered him to spend 90 days in a residential 12-step program. Hazle said he was atheist and asked for a secular program instead. But state officials told him they had none to offer.
This also points up the importance of having secular treatment programs available as alternatives to the religious ones. But it’s a really big victory. Hopefully there is a blanket ban on this practice in California that spreads around the country. The government simply cannot force or coerce someone into a religious program of any kind, and giving them a “choice” between a religious program or prison is clear coercion.