ACLU claims that restrictions on head and facial hair violates prisoners’ religious rights

Tomorrow morning, lawyers for the ACLU of Virginia will argue that a federal court should hear its case challenging the Virginia Department of Corrections’ requirement that inmates keep their hair short and beards shaven. The ACLU maintains that DOC’s policy violates the religious rights of prisoners whose faiths mandate hair on their heads or faces. Lawyers for the state will ask the court to dismiss the case without further adjudication.
The DOC policy, which was enacted in 1999, requires all inmates to have their hair “cut above the shirt collar and around the ears” and to be no more than one inch in “thickness/depth.” All inmates must be clean shaven, except for mustaches, unless they can obtain a medical exception. The policy contains no religious exemptions, meaning many incarcerated Muslims, Native Americans, and Rastafarians are forced to abandon central tenets of their religious beliefs or face punishment.
The ACLU claims that DOC’s policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which was passed by Congress in 2000 to protect the right of persons to practice their faiths despite incarceration.
“It is sadly ironic,” said ACLU of Virginia executive director Kent Willis, “that Virginia, the state that spawned the principle of religious freedom, has stooped to arguing against a law whose purpose is to expand religious rights.”
The case, originally filed in February 2003, was put on hold while the constitutionality of RLUIPA was challenged in a separate lawsuit. In December 2003, however, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that RLUIPA did not violate the First Amendment mandate for separation of church and state, thus allowing the current case to proceed.
ACLU of Virginia legal director Rebecca K. Glenberg and Stephen Rosenfield of Charlottesville represent five Virginia inmates who were punished for not complying with the policy or who were forced to comply with it to avoid punishment. Two of the inmates are Rastafarians whose religious beliefs oblige them to allow their hair to grow, and three are Muslims who are prohibited from cutting their beards.

Contacts: Kent Willis, Executive Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Rebecca Glenberg, Esq., Legal Director, ACLU of Virginia, 804-644-8022 Stephen Rosenfield, Esq., Charlottesville, Virginia, 434-984-0300