ACLU of Southern California Wins Release for Native American Inmate Who Refused on Religious Grounds to Cut His Hair

May 26, 2004 12:00 am

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LOS ANGELES – In a stinging rebuke to the California Department of Corrections, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals today ordered the release of Billy Soza Warsoldier, a Cahuilla Native American who had refused prison orders to cut his hair short because of his religious beliefs. Prison officials had delayed his May 21st release after Warsoldier fought the policy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, together with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, had filed a federal lawsuit on Warsoldier’s behalf after learning that he was being penalized for practicing his religion, a central tenet of which is the prohibition against cutting one’s hair except upon the death of a loved one.

“We’re very gratified by the court’s decision,” said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “Delaying Mr. Warsoldier’s release for even one day as punishment for his adherence to his faith was a gross violation of his rights. We’ll continue to fight this unjust policy until no inmate is made to suffer for practicing his religion.”

Warsoldier, 55, was incarcerated at the Adelanto Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto. He was denied visitation rights and other privileges for refusing to comply with the Department of Corrections’ grooming policy, which stipulates that male inmates must keep their hair no longer than three inches.

The ACLU filed the religious liberty lawsuit on behalf of Warsoldier on March 31 of this year. On May 3, a federal district court sided with the state, denying Warsoldier’s request for an injunction barring enforcement of the policy. At that time, Warsoldier was scheduled to be released from prison on May 21, 2004.

Only after the district court had denied the injunction was Warsoldier informed that, as a direct consequence of his refusal to violate his religion, he would be additionally punished by an extension of his time in prison until July 7 and possibly longer. On May 21 — the date Warsoldier was originally scheduled to be released — the ACLU and Bingham McCutchen filed an emergency motion in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting that Warsoldier’s punishments — including his additional prison time — be withdrawn immediately. The court granted the emergency request and ordered the state to release Warsoldier while his appeal is pending.

The ACLU noted that both the Cahuilla tribe and the federal government have recognized Warsoldier’s status as a member of the tribe. According to their faith, Warsoldier’s long hair embodies the strength and wisdom he has acquired over his lifetime, and he would lose that strength and wisdom, and jeopardize his status in the afterlife, if he were to cut it. Therefore, since 1971, Warsoldier has cut his hair only once, upon his father’s death in 1980.

“I don’t understand why I’m being punished for practicing my faith,” Warsoldier said at the time the case was filed. “My tradition tells me that if I cut my hair, I may face taunting and ridicule from deceased members of my tribe. I would prefer to take the state’s punishment than violate my faith.”

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