Cherokee inmate asks full 6th Circuit to hear long-hair dispute

Friday, October 14, 2005

A Native American inmate has asked the full 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to take up his case after a three-judge panel ruled that prison officials can force him to cut his hair without violating his religious-liberty rights.

Cornelius Hoevenaar, a prisoner of Cherokee ancestry in his 60s serving a life sentence in Ohio, contends that prison grooming rules violate his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).

A prison grooming rule declares: “Haircuts shall be provided as needed. Hair and hairstyles shall be clean, neatly trimmed and shall not extend over the ears or the shirt collar. Hair and hairstyle shall not protrude more than three inches from the scalp.” Hoevenaar refused to cut his hair in 2002, claiming long hair was essential to his religious beliefs, connecting him to the “Red Road of Life.” When Hoevenaar did not cut his hair, prison officials segregated him from other inmates. After a week of isolation, Hoevenaar agreed to a haircut.

Hoevenaar sued in March 2003, contending that prison officials violated his rights under the First Amendment and RLUIPA. He argued that officials should at least allow him to grow a “kouplock,” which he described as a two-inch square of hair at the base of the skull. Prison officials countered that the grooming regulation advanced the prison’s compelling interest in maintaining security. They testified that inmates sometimes hid contraband in their hair. They also contended that the grooming regulation helped officials in inmate identification by not allowing prisoners to change their hair length dramatically.

In August 2003, a federal district court granted Hoevenaar a preliminary injunction, saying that he could maintain a kouplock. Under RLUIPA, prison officials must have a compelling interest advanced in the least restrictive way possible when they substantially burden an inmate’s religious liberty. The district court determined that prison officials had compelling interests in security and inmate identification. However, the district court wrote: “An exception to the grooming regulation, however, that would allow for the growing of a ‘kouplock’ based on sincerely held religious beliefs, and would be granted to inmates who are determined not to pose a significant security risk, is a less restrictive means of furthering the compelling interest in identifying inmates.”

Prison officials appealed to the 6th Circuit, which initially reversed the district court in July 2004 on the basis of circuit precedent finding RLUIPA unconstitutional. Hoevenaar then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In June 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court vacated the 6th Circuit’s decision, ordering it to re-evaluate the case, Hoevenaar v. Lazaroff, in light of the high court’s ruling in Cutter v. Wilkinson that RLUIPA did not violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Last month, a three-judge panel of the 6th Circuit again ruled in favor of the prison officials in Hoevenaar v. Lazaroff.

The panel determined that the district court should have deferred to the judgment of prison officials with respect to security and inmate identification: “In conducting an analysis of whether the regulation at issue was the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling security interest, the district court did just what the Supreme Court and Congress have warned against: substituting its judgment in place of the experience and expertise of prison officials.”

The panel said that judges do not have to “blindly accept any policy justification offered by state officials,” but that the district court’s analysis “does not reflect the requisite deference to the expertise and experience of prison officials.”

Hoevenaar’s attorney, David Singleton, said, “The rule articulated by the panel totally eviscerates RLUIPA by allowing the warden to argue that any religious accommodation could create a security issue by creating resentment among inmates.

“Under the panel’s logic,” Singleton added, “the district court judge would have to defer to the warden unless the inmate could prove a negative (i.e., that such resentment won’t occur) by substantial evidence. The opinion is also flawed because it ignores the portion of RLUIPA’s legislative history that expresses concern that wardens not be let off the hook by presenting security arguments based on exaggerated fears, speculation and post hoc rationalizations.”

“We have asked for en banc review,” said Singleton, who is executive director of the Cincinnati-based Prison Reform Advocacy Center. He added that they would consider taking the case to the Supreme Court again if the full 6th Circuit refuses to hear the case.

State Solicitor Douglas R. Cole of the Ohio Attorney General's Office said, “We are pleased with the decision and think it properly reflects the legitimate safety concerns that prison officials have when prisoners ask for special exceptions to rules regarding prisoner conduct.”

Cole added: “Recognizing prison officials' legitimate safety concerns helps not only to protect the public from prisoners, but also to protect guards and everyone who works in the prison, and to protect prisoners from each other.”

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