Remain an atheist, go to jail?

I know the proverbial ink has been dry on this one for some time, but I don’t see the issue becoming any less relevant anytime soon. reported a troubling story regarding a parolee and a 12-step program which requires the acknowledgement of a supreme being.

Barry Hazle was released from prison into the 12-step program after pleading no contest to a methamphetamine possession charge. Everyone involved with the case knew Barry was an atheist, they knew these 12-step programs are centered around the acceptance of a supreme being, and thus his later “congenial” refusal to acknowledge a higher power was not a surprise. The surprise only came when Barry sued for false imprisonment after revocation of his parole–suing not only his parole officer, but several state (California) corrections officials, and Westcare Corporation (which I will assume was actually administering the residential treatment program).

Here’s where it gets hairy. The judge found the defendants liable in the first trial, but the first jury awarded him zero damages, which in itself is frightening. It essentially says that the time and freedom of the accused are worthless. (And possibly that Norm Crosby was onto something when he said “When you go into court, you are putting your fate into the hands of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to get out of jury duty.” I believe in the power of juries and I take jury duty seriously, but I admit that every once in a while juries do things that make this quote into a piece of profound wisdom.) Not surprisingly, Barry appealed this verdict and got a new trial after the appeals court ruled he was entitled to damages.

It’s troubling to me that the state would attempt to indirectly force someone to adopt religion. There are websites about how to go through 12-step programs from an atheist perspective ( was one of the more prominent ones when I searched, but by no means the only one), though I doubt Barry had access to anything on the Internet in his situation.

This can also be shown as yet another failure of drug prohibition laws, which I have spoken against time and time again on this blog. More troubling than the law itself in this case, however, is its abuse to attempt to force religion onto a known atheist in a very vulnerable circumstance.