Monday, August 1, 2005
Prison Hair Length Rule Infringes Religious Freedom, Court Says
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
A California Department of Corrections regulation limiting the length of male prisoners’ hair to three inches violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday.
The panel said U.S. District Judge Ronald S.W. Lew was in error when he denied Billy Soza Warsoldier a preliminary injunction prior to the Native American inmate’s release last year and sent the case back to the District Court.
Warsoldier, a Cahuilla Indian who served about 14 months in a minimum-security prison at Adelanto, said his religion teaches that hair symbolizes and embodies the knowledge that a person acquires during a lifetime.
Cutting his hair, except when a close relative dies, would prevent him from joining his ancestors in the afterlife, he added. He hasn’t cut his hair since his father died in 1980, allowing it to extend to his belt, Judge Harry Pregerson explained.
For violating the grooming policies, Warsoldier was confined to his cell, denied sentence-reducing credits, expelled from print shop and landscaping classes, denied telephone calls, removed from an inmate advisory council position, denied recreation privileges in the main yard and limited in what he could buy at the prison store.
Prison officials said the limits on hair length were needed for security and health reasons.
Pregerson acknowledged that those are compelling state interests. But the appellate jurist explained that RLUIPA—which was enacted by Congress after a broader religious freedom statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court—requires not only that the interest be compelling, but that the state choose the least intrusive restriction on religious liberty that will meet the need.
The state, Pregerson said, failed to show that it could not meet its security needs through a policy that exempted minimum-security inmates, or exempted those like Warsoldier who did not cut their hair for religious reasons, or treated the male inmates in a manner similar to females, who are required to keep their hair neat and wear it no lower than the collar, but are not limited to a specific length.
Pregerson said the policy forced Warsoldier “to choose between following his religious beliefs and suffering continual punishment.î
“We have previously held that putting substantial pressure on an adherent to modify his behavior and to violate his beliefs infringes on the free exercise of religion,” he added in an opinion joined by Judge Richard A. Paez and Senior Judge A. Wallace Tashima.
Ben Wizner, an American Civil Liberties Union attorney who helped represent Warsoldier, said the ruling “marks the writing on the wall for restrictions on inmate religious practices that are not strictly necessary for prison security.”
“Grooming policies that provide no exemption for sincerely held religious beliefs can’t possibly survive this ruling.”
Released From Prison
Warsoldier, a 56-year-old Riverside artist and gallery owner who was released from prison in May 2004, said the decision was a victory for Indian men. “I was just upholding something I have always believed in,” he added.
He said he was charged with drunken driving and possession of brass knuckles after he was stopped for speeding near Van Nuys.
“I had been drinking, sure,” he said. “I was way off on the wrong freeway going the right direction but on the wrong freeway.”
A spokesman for the Department of Corrections, Todd Slosek, said the state’s attorneys wanted to review the ruling before commenting.
Andrey Huang, a private attorney who also represented Warsoldier, said he probably would be willing to drop his lawsuit if the department agreed to revise its grooming requirements “on a broad basis.”
The case is Warsoldier v. Woodford, 04-55879.
Copyright 2005, Metropolitan News Company