Federal appeals panel: Jewish inmate can sue Ohio over forced shaving
By The Associated Press
|Convicted murderer Hbrandon Lee Flagner, 49, shown in undated handout from Ohio Department of Corrections.|
CINCINNATI An Orthodox Hasidic Jew serving a life term can sue Ohio prison officials on his claim that they violated his right to freedom of religion when they forcibly cut off his beard, a federal appeals panel ruled last week.
However, the three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Feb. 22 that Hbrandon Lee Flagner could not try to collect monetary damages from prison officials. Those officials are legally immune from such lawsuits in carrying out their official duties, the judges ruled.
Flagner, 49, was sent to prison in 1986 after being convicted in Cuyahoga County of aggravated murder and kidnapping. He also was convicted of breaking and entering in Lorain County.
He said his beard and sideburns were cut in 1996 and 1998, in violation of his religious beliefs.
The state's lawyers are reviewing the ruling and deciding their next step, said Joe Case, a spokesman for Attorney General Betty Montgomery. He says they are concerned that the ruling could expose Ohio to many similar claims by bearded prisoners.
Prison officials say Flagner was treated no differently than other inmates. The state's prison regulations require inmates to keep beards and sideburns neatly trimmed, within a half inch of the skin, so that they cannot hide weapons, drugs or other illegal items.
Michael O'Hara, Flagner's lawyer, says he has seen photographs showing Flagner's beard reaching about 4 inches below his chin. O'Hara does not know whether the beard is longer now.
The defense presented testimony that Flagner and four American Indian prisoners were exempted from the grooming regulation between the time his beard and sideburns were cut in 1996 and 1998.
On fewer than five occasions, prison officials required Flagner to run his fingers through his beard and sideburns while they watched to see if he had hidden anything illegal. Nothing illegal was ever found, and there is no evidence that he has ever tried to escape from prison, according to testimony.
In a 2-1 ruling, the appeals panel said Flagner had presented enough evidence about the prison system's on-again, off-again attitude toward cutting his beard that a trial jury should be asked to decide whether his First Amendment right of religious freedom was violated.
In a dissent, Judge David Nelson said he believes that Ohio has the constitutional authority to make Flagner comply with the grooming regulation.
The case now returns to U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott in Cincinnati for trial.
The issue of long hair on inmates and prison guards, and the authority of prison officials to order it cut as a potential security risk, has been fought in courts in various states.
The Ohio Supreme Court ruled in May that an American Indian corrections officer at the state's Nelsonville prison could keep his hair long in line with his religious beliefs, contrary to an order by the prison department to cut it. The officer wore his hair under his cap while working.
The same month, Muslim guards in New Jersey's prisons reached a settlement with that state exempting them from a policy barring guards from wearing beards. The guards, practitioners of the Sunni branch of Islam, sued in federal court to say the policy violated their right to religious freedom. The state said guards had to be groomed for safety reasons.
Last year, New York state prison officials restored rules limiting the length of inmates' beards or mustaches to 1 inch, after a lengthy dispute involving a federal law and various court rulings.
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