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Freethought Today · September 2013

Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc.

In the News

Calif. atheist parolee
entitled to damages

An atheist parolee who was sent back to prison after refusing to take part in a religious drug treatment program must be compensated, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 23. A California jury had denied damages to Barry Hazle Jr. after a federal judge agreed his rights had been violated, reported the Sacramento Bee. Hazle, 45, a computer technician, did a year in state prison on a drug conviction. When he got out, his parole agent insisted he enter a treatment program that required acknowledgment of a higher power.

Hazle complained, was removed from the program and resentenced to three months and 10 days. He sued the state in 2008.

U.S. District Judge Garland Burrell Jr. found in Hazle’s favor, but when the case went to trial on the issue of money, the jury refused to award damages. Burrell denied Hazle’s motion for a new trial. The appellate judges sent the case back to Burrell for a new damages trial and directed him to instruct the jury that Hazle is entitled to damages.

The panel also said Hazle is entitled to a new trial as to emotional distress damages because of erroneous jury instructions and because the verdict form was flawed. The unanimous opinion also reversed Burrell’s ruling that let defendant Westcare California Inc. off the hook. The company contracts with the state to coordinate drug treatment for parolees.

The ruling said there’s “a genuine issue of material fact” whether Westcare contributed to the violation of Hazle’s constitutional rights when it chose to contract with treatment facilities offering only religious-based programs and when it arranged for Hazle to attend one while knowing that as an atheist he objected.


N.C. board prayed behind closed doors

According to the Salisbury [N.C.] Post, Rowan County, N.C., commissioners went behind closed doors to pray Aug. 5 to avoid violating a court order barring them from saying sectarian prayers to start their meeting,

Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides started the meeting by reading a statement about the injunction issued last month by a federal judge in an ongoing lawsuit over prayer at board meetings.

“We believe this injunction is unconstitutional,” Sides said. He said if board members prayed in the open meeting, they would use language that does not mention Jesus.

Commissioner Jon Barber moved that the board recess to pray. They left the meeting chambers for about three minutes.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in March on behalf of three residents trying to stop the overwhelmingly Christian prayers that open meetings. 

Barber told the newspaper he “will always pray in the name of Jesus” and doesn’t fret about it. “I have already won this war through my salvation in Jesus Christ. God will lead me through this persecution and I will be his instrument.”


Survey finds but one ‘none’ in Congress

BuzzFeed online “mapped out” the religions of all 435 U.S. House members by using how they’ve publicly identified, along with statements their spokespersons made.

There are 31 religions represented, including 26 different sects of Christianity. Catholics make up the largest group with 136 members, followed by Baptists with 66, Methodists with 45, Anglicans/Episcopalians with 35, Presbyterians with 28 and Jews with 22. There is only one atheist.

Most Catholics and Jews are Democrats and most Anglicans/Episcopalians, Baptists, Lutherans, Methodists, Mormons and Presbyterians are Republican. 

Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., is listed as the only “none,” and Rep. Ami Bera, D-Calif., is a Unitarian.

Wis. inmate wins
study group appeal

A Wisconsin inmate’s request to form an atheist study group deserves the same consideration afforded to a recognized “religious” group, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled Aug. 16.

Inmate James Kaufman sued after being denied a request by the warden to form a group “for the study of the history of religion, where and how religious beliefs originated, the origins of belief, and the possible future of belief systems; responsibilities and privileges in society; right versus wrong, and ethical issues.”

U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb previously ruled that Stanley Correctional Facility had a legitimate secular reason for prohibiting an atheist group based on evidence that only two inmates had any interest in such a group. Kaufman challenged the finding that he was one of only two inmates interested in atheism.

As reported by Courthouse News Service, Kaufman argued that atheism is not an option on the prison’s “religious preference” form, which allows inmates to select one of seven recognized religious umbrella groups. The only other options are “no preference” or “other,” in which an inmate can write in a religion.

“He contends that the prison made it impossible to know how many inmates would have joined such a group, because it ignored ‘write-in’ votes for atheism (or related schools of thought) and recharacterized them as ‘No Preference,’ ” Judge Diane Wood wrote for the three-judge panel.

Kaufman “points to general evidence such as almanacs suggesting that as many as 10 to 14% of the population self-identifies as atheistic, and he suggests that hidden in the mass of ‘No Preference’ inmates are enough people to justify a group that would meet once or twice a month,” she added.

Based on Kaufman’s claim, 206 out of Stanley’s 1,465 inmates, 14%, are of unknown religious affiliation. Applying Kaufman’s citations that between 7 and 14% of adult Americans describe themselves as being atheist, agnostic or humanist, it is possible that between 102 and 206 of Stanley’s inmates might fall within Kaufman’s proposed group.

“Only a credible survey of the inmate population, or the simple expedient of adding ‘atheist, agnostic, or humanist’ to the preference form and collecting new data, can resolve this uncertainty,” Wood wrote.

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