Chicago News Cooperative
A Forced Prison Haircut Brings Up Questions About Freedom of Religion
By JAMES WARREN
Published: January 21, 2012
James Warren writes a column for The Chicago News Cooperative.
It was probably stupid, too, for a prison guard to order the forcible shearing of the dreadlocks of an inmate, Omar Grayson, a member of the African Hebrew group. A federal appeals court has just ruled in favor of Mr. Grayson in a decision that includes an improbable visual reference to Bob Marley.
The court reversed a trial court that threw out Mr. Grayson’s lawsuit, which claimed his free exercise of religion was violated when his dreadlocks were shorn. According to the opinion, some, but not all, African Hebrew Israelites believe they should not cut their hair.
Illinois inmates can “have any length of hair” as long as it “does not create a security risk,” according to prison regulations. Harold Schuler, an officer at Big Muddy Correctional Center, just south of tiny Ina, in Jefferson County, thought Mr. Grayson’s dreadlocks posed such a risk, though he did not explain why.
When the inmate complained, the chaplain claimed that only Rastafarian inmates were entitled to wear dreadlocks on religious grounds. An internal prison appeal was denied, based on the chaplain’s theological analysis.
But a panel of Richard Posner, Ilana Rovner and David Hamilton of the United States Court of Appeals — in a case in which Mr. Grayson represented himself — said the decision made no sense, even if the judges appreciate how dreadlocks could conceal contraband. It explains why Judge Posner, who wrote the opinion, includes a photo of Marley to underscore how “dreadlocks can attain a formidable length and density.”
Judges do not often do this sort of thing, perhaps thinking it somehow undignified. And while the intellectually mischievous Judge Posner once included a picture of a lion eating cake made of horse meat, whipped cream and carrot, that was for comic purposes. The intent here is to convey information. More important is the conclusion that dreadlocks should pass legal muster when motivated by bona fide religious belief.
The court could not find any well-articulated rationale for a Rastafarian exception to a ban on long hair. The state law that permits long hair unless it poses a security risk does not sound like “Prisoners must have short hair unless they are Rastafarians,” Judge Posner, one of the most influential federal judges outside the Supreme Court, said.
The opinion envisioned the possibility of justifiable religious discrimination inspired by security worries. It discussed a hypothetical “ban on Thuggee, the notorious Indian cult stamped out by the British, whose votaries believed they were the children of the Hindu goddess Kali and that she had commanded them to commit mass murder — a command they followed with enthusiasm.”
But Big Muddy lets Rastafarians wear dreadlocks and did not justify why Mr. Grayson posed a security risk the Rastafarians did not.
The decision includes a lively discussion of heresy as it argues that a prison could not let only members of sects that require dreadlocks to wear them. “Heretics have religious rights,” it reminded, noting that “the founders of Christianity (Jesus Christ, the Apostles and St. Paul) were Jewish heretics; Luther and Calvin and other founders of Protestantism were Catholic heretics.”
To be protected by the First Amendment, religious belief must be sincere but not necessarily orthodox.
“Judge Posner is obviously correct,” Andrew Koppelman, a Northwestern University law professor, said. “If freedom of religion means anything, it means you can’t discriminate among religions, and you can’t tell a religious believer that he’s wrong about what his religion requires.”
Richard Rosengarten, a religion professor at the University of Chicago, said with a smile, “It’s great that a justice with such a thinning pate has such an un-self-conscious appreciation of dreadlocks.”
As for the religious analysis, “What impresses me is that Posner knows something about religion,” he said. The appellate court decision returned Mr. Grayson’s case to the lower court for a trial.
As for the future of his dreadlocks (he is no longer in prison, the court noted), I can only offer the counsel of Antonio Favaro, a stylist and owner of Fuga salons: Keep them clean, use a little coconut oil, and cover them when in tricky environments like a forest, jungle or the Chicago Transit Authority.
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