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Dreadlocked: Prison Haircut Based on Religious Discrimination

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By Robyn Hagan Cain on January 20, 2012 3:06 PM

Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Richard Posner wants you to know that "Jesus was a heretic" and "heretics have religious rights."

But that heretical tangent doesn't apply to plaintiff Omar Grayson, who Posner is quick to identify as "not a heretic." Instead, Grayson is an Orthodox African Hebrew Israelite of Jerusalem.

He's also a former inmate of the Big Muddy Correctional Center in Illinois.

Grayson brought a religious discrimination lawsuit against Harold Schuler, a correctional officer at the facility who ordered Grayson's dreadlocks to be forcibly cut to comply with a prison safety policy. When Grayson explained to the prison chaplain that he maintained the dreadlocks for religious reasons, he was informed that only Rastafarians were permitted to keep their dreadlocks in prison.

The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals found that such distinctions constitute religious discrimination. While a ban on all long hair, including styles -- like dreadlocks -- motivated by sincere religious belief would pass constitutional muster, the prison in this case engaged in arbitrary discrimination. "Permitting prisoners to 'have any length of hair ... so long as [it] does not create a security risk' doesn't sound like 'prisoners must have short hair unless they are Rastafarians,'" Posner wrote.

While Grayson's faith did not require that he maintain dreadlocks, Grayson claimed he had taken a special vow within the religion that required him to keep long hair. But Grayson's above-and-beyond approach to his faith did not affect his claim.

The court noted that government is not permitted to justify religious discrimination based on an assessment of an adherent's sincerity or zeal for his faith. "A religious believer who does more than he is strictly required to do is nevertheless exercising his religion." On the opposite end of the spectrum, a sincere believer does not forfeit his rights simply because he does not strictly follow his faith. As Posner muses, "Where would religion be without its backsliders, penitents, and prodigal sons?"'

Ultimately, this analysis led the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals to reverse the district court's summary judgment and qualified immunity decisions in Grayson's case, as the prison official had not established that he ordered Grayson's haircut out of security concerns. Instead, the evidence presented at appeal indicated that Grayson's hair was cut because he wasn't a Rastafarian, a position the Seventh Circuit held could not be construed as reasonably constitutional.

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