(CN) – Correctional officers in South Carolina violated the religious rights of a Rastafarian inmate by forcibly shaving his head, the 4th Circuit ruled. However, the court rejected his claims that officers used excessive force to restrain him and kept him in deplorable prison conditions.
Kevin Smith, also known as “Bar-None Royal Blackness,” sued 26 employees of the South Carolina Department of Corrections, claiming the mandatory haircut violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and his constitutional rights.
The federal appeals court in Richmond, Va., vacated the lower court’s ruling for the correctional officers, saying the department failed to show that the forced shaved-head policy, implemented “for security reasons,” is the “least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest.”
The prison’s “forcible grooming” policy substantially burdened Smith’s religious exercise, the appeals court ruled.
Many Rastafarians associate dreadlocks with a spiritual journey and vow never to cut their hair. They cite biblical commandments, such as in Leviticus 21:5: “They shall not make baldness upon their head, neither shall they not shave off the corner of their beard nor make any cuttings in their flesh,” and a passage in Numbers stating that “no razors may be used on his head … he must let the hair on his head grow long.”
“The policy requiring Smith to cut his hair – and implementing that policy with physical force – compelled him to modify his behavior in violation of his genuinely held religious beliefs,” Judge Michael wrote.
Smith said officers used more force than necessary to shear his locks on two occasions. In 2002, five officers entered his cell, shackled his arms and legs, and moved him to another room for the haircuit. The next year, officers allegedly approached him in the exercise yard and doused him with pepper spray, claiming they didn’t think his handcuffs would adequately restrain him.
After viewing prison videos, the court determined that the officers hadn’t used excessive force in restraining Smith, and the videos supported their claim that Smith resisted being placed in restraints by spreading soap and water on the floor, throwing feces and wielding a shank. The 4th Circuit affirmed summary judgment against Smith on his constitutional claims.
But prison officials failed to dodge Smith’s claims under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. To show how its forced grooming policy benefitted the state, the prison had relied on an affidavit showing how the policy could be a cost-cutting measure for inmates in lower-security cells.
However, the affidavit said nothing about maximum-security inmates or the grooming policy’s impact on religious beliefs, the 4th Circuit noted. Even security concerns, such as long hair being used to hide contraband, were not explored among higher-security inmates, Judge Michael said. As a result, the court concluded, the affidavit can’t be used to support the claim that the policy served a compelling governmental interest.
It vacated summary judgment for the defendants on that ground and remanded.