Jan. 17, 2012 – The Hon. Richard Posner, judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, recently received some national attention with a court opinion that includes a photo of the legendary Bob Marley (deceased), a famous reggae musician from Jamaica.
Judge Posner included the photo to illustrate how prison officials might perceive dreadlocks, a type of hairstyle worn by members of the Rastafarian religion, to be a security risk, noting that dreadlocks “can attain a formidable length and density” large enough to conceal contraband.
But Judge Posner ruled in favor of a former prison inmate who sued an Illinois correctional officer for cutting his dreadlocks. The inmate, a member of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, asserted that growing dreadlocks was part of a religious observance.
Illinois law allows prisoners to have any length of hair so long as it does not create a security risk. The First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion. The prison’s practice seemed to allow Rastafarians to keep dreadlocks based on religious considerations, but not others.
The correctional officer ordered the haircut after the prison chaplain explained that, unlike Rastafarians, African Hebrew Israelites are not required by faith to wear dreadlocks.
But in Grayson v. Schuler, No. 10-3256 (Jan. 13, 2012), a three-judge panel for the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cutting Omar Grayson’s dreadlocks was a case of “outright arbitrary discrimination” rather than a mere failure to accommodate religious rights.
In the opinion, Judge Posner explained that a prison rule allowing Rastafarians to wear dreadlocks, a “Rastafarian exception,” and not others with a sincere religious belief in the practice “would discriminate impermissibly in favor of one religious sect.”
He noted that regulations of general applicability not intended to discriminate against a particular sect do not abridge free exercise of religion protections. But application of a “Rastafarian exception” is not a general application and is thus unconstitutional.
“No more can the prison permit Rastafarians to wear long hair and without justification forbid a sincere African Hebrew Israelite of Jerusalem to do so, even if he is more zealous in his religious observances than his religion requires him to be,” wrote Judge Posner for the panel, which reversed a district court decision to dismiss the case on summary judgment.