NEW ORLEANS -- A state inmate who argued that being forced to cut his dreadlocks would be an infringement on his religious rights can keep his hairstyle, an appeals court decided Friday.
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a prior lower court’s ruling, which said the state Department of Corrections could forcibly cut the hair of Christopher Ware.
Ware is a Rastafarian, whose religious beliefs require he wear his hair in dreadlocks.
“This is a victory for our client and for all Louisianans who cherish their religious freedom,” said Marjorie Esman, executive director of the ACLU of Louisiana. “All people, including those in prison, have a fundamental right to express their religious beliefs free from discrimination.
Attorneys for the DOC previously said the grooming policy is in place for safety reasons and as a way to prevent contraband getting into jails.
Essman has said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which Congress passed in 2000, prohibits religious discrimination against incarcerated people and “requires that any burdens on prisoners’ rights serve a compelling state interest and be imposed through the least restrictive means possible.”
Ware filed a prior lawsuit in which lawyers claimed the DOC's intake policies require that all male inmates “receive — forcibly, if necessary — a closely-cropped haircut with clippers, commonly known as a ‘buzz cut.’”
“As an exercise of his faith, he took what he describes as the ‘Vow of the Nazarite,’ one aspect of which requires him not to cut or style the hair on his head,” according to court documents. “As a result of Ware's adoption of the Nazarite vow in connection with his Rastafari religious exercise, his hair has grown and continues to grow into long dreadlocks.”
A district court ruled in favor of the DOC in 2014, something the state ACLU appealed. In its appeal, the ACLU said 39 states – and even DOC’s own guidelines for parish jails – impose less restrictive grooming policies.
Ware pleaded guilty to was convicted of two counts of sexual battery in 2014. He began practicing Rastifarianism in “late 2011 or early 2012,” according to court documents.