In a victory for religious freedom, the US Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals today sided with the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana and ruled that the state Department of Corrections’ (DOC) prohibition on dreadlocks violated the rights of their client, Christopher Ware, a Rastafarian inmate whose religious beliefs require that he wear his hair in dreadlocks.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), passed by Congress 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. In challenging DOC’s grooming policy, the ACLU of Louisiana noted that 39 states – and even DOC’s own guidelines for parish jails – impose less restrictive grooming policies.
Reversing a lower court ruling, the appeals court ruled that the DOC’s grooming policies violate RLUIPA. The court concluded that, “DOC failed to meet its burden under RLUIPA of showing both that its grooming policies serve a compelling interest and that they are the least restrictive means of serving any such interest.”
“This is a victory for our client and for all Louisianans who cherish their religious freedom,” said Marjorie Esman, ACLU of Louisiana Executive Director. “All people, including those in prison, have a fundamental right to express their religious beliefs free from discrimination. Our client Christopher Ware took a brave stand against an unjust policy, and today that policy has been struck down.”