Monday, March 12, 2012

A Forced Prison Haircut Brings Up Questions About Freedom Of Religion

Omar Grayson, a prisoner at Big Muddy Correctional Center, was forced to cut his dreadlocks by an officer at the Correctional Center.  Grayson is a member of the African Hebrew group.  African Hebrew Israelites believe they cannot cut their hair.  In Illinois, the location of the Correctional Center, inmates are allowed to have “’any length of hair’ as long as long as it ‘does not create a security risk’”.  The officer claimed Grayson’s hair to be a security risk, but he did not explain why.  Grayson complained about the situation; the chaplain of the center commented about the situation and “claimed that only Rastafarian inmates were entitled to wear dreadlocks on religious grounds”.  Grayson appealed his situation to the Internal Prison Court and was denied his appeal based on the chaplain’s comments. 
The case was heard by the United States Court of Appeals.  The ruling was in favor of Omar Grayson.  The court found that the prison was threatening religious freedom.  They believed the chaplain’s comment about Rastafarian inmates was discriminatory towards other inmates.  Big Muddy Correctional Center “lets Rastafarians wear dreadlocks and did not justify why Mr. Grayson posed a security risk the Rastafarians did not”.  In an effort to award Grayson and other inmates religious freedom, the court ruled in favor of Grayson. 
How did this ruling award religious freedom?  The case at its heart was an issue of discrimination among religions.  When the United States Court of Appeals ruled that Grayson’s forced haircut was religious discrimination, it forbid the forced cutting of hair unless it was a security threat.  An officer or anyone in power over the inmates cannot force an inmate to cut their hair if they claim religious belief for hair length.  They have no right to tell the religious inmate their views are wrong.  However, if the person in power over the inmate has a legitimate reason for the inmate to cut their hair because of security purposes, they must be able to explain why. 
Grayson’s case could have been denied if there was a compelling argument on the officer’s side about a security threat.  I think the chaplain’s comment hurt the case.  It makes me wonder how the case would have favored if the chaplain had not commented in this way. 
This case reminds me of the Reynolds case.  The courts ruled in a similar fashion to the Omar Grayson case.  Polygamy and all religious practices were allowed and could not be deemed incorrect by the law.  Religion and its beliefs are/were not allowed to be dissected by the law and determined wrong.  However, law could be enforced and ultimately stop the practice if there was a threat of security.  Unlike the case, the court ruled in favor of Grayson and his religious beliefs because they were not a threat to security at the center.  The Mormons were not granted as much favor.  Due the prospective of threat on security because of polygamy, polygamy was banned and outlawed.    


Alicia said...

I am actually in favor of the ruling of this case. The case raises questions about the ability of the state to determine what constitutes a legitimate religion (Rastafarians are the only religion permitted to keep dreadlocks) and also equal protection under the law (Grayson should be able to keep his dreadlocks so far as it does not pose a security threat). The case seems reminiscent of Cantwell v. Connecticut (1940) in which the Court ruled that the requirement of a religious institution to obtain a state issued permit infringed on 14th amendment rights. Obtaining a state issued permit implied that religious legitimacy relied solely on the determination of the state. The Courts rightly ruled in favor of Cantwell and I believe here rightly ruled in favor of Grayson.

Christiana Torere said...

I have to agree that the ruling of this case was fair. After reading this blog I had the same question as Amber; I wondered if the officer provided a legitimate reason as to why Grayson’s hair was considered a security threat would the case be ruled the same way. I saw how religious freedom was violated, but the ruling was predicated on who had the better reasoning, therefore was not looked at any further to see if the hair was actually a security threat. This goes to show how important religious freedom is in the U.S, although it sometimes contradicts the idea when it comes to accepting other religious practices.

Kyle I. said...

This article raises an even broader question about the place of religion as a category. I wonder if it is appropriate to make distinctions or exceptions based on exceptions solely on religious grounds. Why can't someone who just really wants to keep their hair long be allowed to wear dreads, even if there is no religious reason?