Written by Don Byrd

The Louisiana Department of Corrections failed to demonstrate the necessity of enforcing against a Rastafari inmate a prison grooming standard prohibiting dreadlocks, according to a Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling late last week. The court sided with inmate Christopher Ware, who claims his dreadlocks are an expression of his faith, and that forcing him to cut them violates his religious liberty rights under federal law.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) bars the government from placing a substantial burden on an inmate’s religious exercise unless it can demonstrate it is necessary to further a “compelling government interest.” In Ware’s case, a trial court previously ruled in favor of the state, but law week’s appeals panel ruling overturned that decision, finding the Louisiana Department of Corrections failed to meet its legal threshold.

First, the court noted, there is a different policy for Department of Corrections (DOC) inmates than for Parish jail prisoners, where grooming standards allow Ware’s dreadlocks. How compelling can the state’s interest be in outlawing dreadlocks, the court seems to ask, when it allows parish inmates to grow them? 

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

Although it is true that certain types of offenders in DOC’s custody are ineligible to be parish inmates, DOC offered no evidence to support its bare assertion that this difference resulted in dreadlocks among parish inmates presenting less of a risk to DOC’s asserted interests than dreadlocks among DOC inmates would. . . . In the face of this absence of evidence on the risks posed by parish inmates, accepting DOC’s assertion that parish inmates pose less of a security risk than DOC inmates would afford DOC . . . the sort of “unquestioning deference” in our RLUIPA analysis that the Supreme Court has proscribed. We thus conclude that the alleged greater security risks posed by DOC inmates compared to parish inmates are not an adequate explanation for DOC’s decision not to subject parish inmates to the grooming policies because it is not supported by the record. Because they failed to explain adequately this disparity, the court ruled, the state did not meet its burden of demonstrating a compelling interest.

In addition, the court found that even if a compelling interest was demonstrated, the state failed to show why this particular restriction on dreadlocks was the least restrictive way of achieving it. If a ban on dreadlocks is necessary, why can so many other states offer inmates the freedom to grow them?

We agree that simply because 39 other jurisdictions have adopted more lenient policies than DOC’s grooming policies does not mean that DOC must conform to those policies in order to satisfy RLUIPA. However, when “so many prisons” have different grooming policies, DOC “must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course.” DOC has failed to offer such persuasive reasons here. . . . Because Ware offered evidence that the vast majority of jurisdictions have a more lenient policy with regard to dreadlocks than DOC, [Supreme Court precedent] requires that DOC offer persuasive reasons for the disparity. DOC failed to offer any such reasons, and accordingly, it has failed to demonstrate that its grooming policies are the least restrictive means of achieving its compelling interests.

For more, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on RLUIPA.