Written by Don Byrd

A federal court in Ohio has ruled in favor of a Rastafarian prisoner’s claim that a rule barring him from wearing his hair in dreadlocks as required by his faith violates his religious liberty rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

RLUIPA allows the government to substantially burden an inmate’s religious exercise only if such a burden is “the least restrictive means” of achieving a compelling state interest. Here, the court was especially critical of Ohio’s blanket ban, which presumed that all dreadlocks render a prisoner’s hair “unsearchable,” and thus a security risk. Other prison systems, however, address these security concerns adequately by analyzing such risks, within a request for religious accommodation, on a case-by-case basis.

Here is a key quote from the opinion, explaining the judge’s concern:

Defendants’ policies are undoubtedly more restrictive than the majority of the policies from the jurisdictions that address hairstyle and security on a case-by-case basis.

The Court is mindful of the difficulties faced by prison staff and is aware that prisons are unique institutions with serious safety concerns. Nor does the Court mean to suggest that defendants cannot ban unsearchable hair. The problem defendants now face, however, is that the policies before the Court are not so drafted. These policies are much more restrictive than those of the vast majority of other states. And “in the face of evidence that many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes it must take a different course.” Ohio has not done so in this case. As such, the Court finds that because the vast majority of jurisdictions are able to manage the risk associated with dreadlocks short of a complete ban, defendants’ policies as applied to plaintiff are not the least restrictive means as a matter of law.

Therefore, the Court concludes that plaintiff is entitled to judgment in his favor. The Court hereby grants plaintiff’s request for a declaration that the grooming policies as applied to him, violate RLUIPA. Defendants are hereby enjoined from enforcing such policies against plaintiff.

RLUIPA is an essential tool for protecting the religious liberty rights of prisoners. That is not to say that prisoners always win these legal disputes, or that religious liberty trumps security concerns under the law. In fact RLUIPA analysis gives defers significantly to prison officials in implementing policies designed to maintain security and order. However, courts emphasize that the state cannot simply assert, without support, that a policy is necessary when there are other ways of achieving the same important objective that provide more latitude for prisoners’ religious free exercise.

That doesn’t mean that all prisoners must now be allowed to wear their hair in dreadlocks. But it does mean that when a prisoner requests a religious accommodation for dreadlocks because of sincerely held beliefs, prison officials must evaluate whether that particular prisoner can be allowed to wear his hair that way while still achieving their safety objectives.

For more on this topic, see the BJC’s RLUIPA resource page.