Saturday, July 24, 2004

Court cuts hair case short

Cherokee inmate argues religious beliefs are violated

By John Nolan
The Associated Press

A federal appeals court ruled Friday against a Cherokee inmate who asked to be allowed to grow long hair because of his religious beliefs.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Cornelius W. Hoevenaar's argument was based on a federal law that the court has ruled unconstitutional.

The case, or others like it, could eventually wind up before the Supreme Court to decide whether Congress or the states have the authority over religious freedom of prisoners and how that should be accommodated in areas including diets, hair length and religious services.

State prison officials argue that, in some cases, inmates could use gatherings for "religious services" as a cover for meetings of prison gangs.

Hoevenaar, 66, said his American Indian religion prohibits cutting his hair and that prison regulations limiting hair length violate his constitutional right to practice his religious beliefs. He is serving a life sentence from Hamilton County for aggravated murder and aggravated robbery.

The Madison Correctional Institution and other Ohio prisons require male inmates to keep their hair 3 inches or shorter for security reasons and to make it easier to identify the prisoners. Weapons could be hidden in long hair, and extra facial hair could make it harder to identify inmates, prison officials say.

Hoevenaar's lawyer argued the hair restriction violates a 2000 federal law that prohibits governments from limiting religious freedoms in prisons and other institutions that receive federal funds, unless there is a compelling reason. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act gives inmates the right to gather for worship or follow religious dietary practices.

David Singleton, Hoevenaar's lawyer, said that he will ask the Supreme Court to review the case.

The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a lower court's August 2003 ruling that granted Hoevenaar an exception to grow longer hair.

The appeals court ruled in November 2003 that the federal law has the effect of advancing religion, violating the Constitution's ban on Congress making laws regarding the establishment of religion.

Judges in five federal appeals circuits and two U.S. District courts have said the law is constitutional, while the 6th Circuit and at least two federal district rulings said it is not, the 6th Circuit judges noted in their ruling last November.

David Goldberger, an Ohio State University law professor representing about 150 Ohio prisoners in the case the 6th Circuit decided in November, has asked the Supreme Court to review his case in light of the conflicting decisions.

Goldberger contends that Congress has the power to require state prison officials to accommodate the religious freedom of inmates, even for non-mainstream religions.

In one of the related cases, Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to review - and reject - the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the law is constitutional. In that case, Virginia inmate Ira Madison sued after state officials rejected his demand for a kosher diet. Madison said his religious beliefs require the diet accommodation.

Virginia prison officials attempt to accommodate religious beliefs as part of trying to rehabilitate prisoners, but they believe the state should decide how that is done - not Congress, said William Thro, Virginia's state solicitor general.

"What's really at issue here is who controls, and sets policies for, the state's prisons," Thro said Friday by telephone from Richmond, Va.

The Supreme Court could decide this fall whether to hear either the Virginia case, the Ohio case, or both.


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