Editor's note: The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari in Hoevenaar v. Lazaroff on June 6, 2005, then vacated the judgment and remanded the case to the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
CINCINNATI — A federal appeals court has ruled 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 on July 23 said Cornelius W.
Hoevenaar's argument was based on a federal law that the court had ruled
The case, Hoevenaar v. Lazaroff, 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 diet, 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
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, lawyer for Hoevenaar, said on July 23 that he would ask the
Supreme Court to review the case.
The 6th Circuit reversed a lower court's August 2003 ruling that granted
Hoevenaar an exception to grow longer hair.
The appeals court ruled in November 2003 in Cutter v.
Wilkinson 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 have 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
In one of the related cases, Virginia is asking the Supreme Court to review —
and reject — the 4th Circuit's 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 required the diet
Virginia's solicitor general says state prison officials try to accommodate
religious beliefs as part of their efforts to rehabilitate prisoners, but the
officials believe the state should decide how that is done — not Congress.
"What's really at issue here is who controls, and sets policies for, the
state's prisons," William Thro said on July 23 by telephone from Richmond,
The Supreme Court could decide this fall whether to hear either the Virginia
case, the Ohio case, or both.