Prison guards’ long hair, beards show religious liberty alive, well

Sunday, June 4, 2000

By winning the right to wear long hair and beards, prison guards in two states have demonstrated that religious freedom is alive and well in America.

The first case involves a Native American corrections officer in Ohio who was ordered by the state to cut his hair or be fired. Citing deeply held religious beliefs, the guard refused. Last week, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that the guard could keep his long hair.

In the second case, 33 Muslim prison guards in New Jersey won exemption from a state policy barring guards from wearing beards. The Muslims had complained that the policy infringed upon their right to practice their faith.

Under terms of the settlement with the New Jersey Department of Corrections, the Muslims get to keep their beards and they need not be certified as practicing Muslims by an Islamic cleric (a requirement of the previous policy).

At first glance, many Americans might be tempted to dismiss these claims as “nuisance” lawsuits unworthy of court time.

But take a closer look at two key questions raised by these cases.

First, should the government take religious claims seriously?

And second, would religious exemptions to grooming policies significantly undermine the government's ability to maintain a well-run prison?

The answer to the first question is as old as America itself. The principles of religious freedom embodied in the First Amendment should mean at least this: Whenever possible, the government should try to protect the right of citizens to follow the “dictates of conscience” in matters of faith.

The accommodation requested by the guards in these cases wasn't burdensome or unreasonable. The Native American employee, for example, kept his hair braided and concealed it beneath a cap while working. All the officers wanted was to practice their faith without losing their jobs.

As for the second question, state officials in Ohio and New Jersey argued that they have a strong interest in strict and uniform grooming policies. That makes sense. After all, prisons are difficult and dangerous places to work, and as in the military, there are a host of good reasons for strict policies related to discipline and safety.

But here's the First Amendment issue: Would beards or a braid under a cap seriously hinder the operation of the prisons?

In both these cases, state officials failed to make a convincing case that allowing religious exemptions to grooming polices would compromise state interests.

The Ohio case is particularly significant because the state Supreme Court recognizes stronger protection for religious freedom under the Ohio Constitution than the U.S. Supreme Court now acknowledges under the First Amendment.

This decision is another hopeful sign that the religious-liberty provisions of state constitutions may restore some of the free-exercise rights weakened by recent U. S. Supreme Court rulings.

Cases such as these don't get much attention. Most Americans don't know much about the religious traditions involved and can't see the relevance of cases about beards or braids to their own lives.

But we should all be grateful that these guards were willing to challenge government policies in the name of liberty of conscience. Their victories today may well define our religious freedom tomorrow.