ACLU Files Religious Liberty Lawsuit on Behalf of Native American Who Refuses to Cut Hair

March 31, 2004 12:00 am

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ADELANTO, CA — The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of a Native American inmate who has faced serious disciplinary sanctions — including the loss of all visitation rights — for his refusal to comply with a California Department of Corrections grooming policy requiring all male inmates to maintain hair no longer than three inches in length.

Billy Soza Warsoldier is a Cahuilla Native American whose religious beliefs prohibit him from cutting his hair except upon the death of a loved one.

“Punishing Warsoldier for practicing his religion is both unnecessary and illegal,” said Ben Wizner, a staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. “A prison inmate shouldn’t have to choose between remaining faithful to his religion and maintaining contact with his children and grandchildren.”

Warsoldier is currently incarcerated at the Adelanto Community Correctional Facility. Both the Cahuilla tribe and the federal government have recognized his status as a Cahuilla. According to Warsoldier’s faith, his 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,” said Warsoldier, who is serving time for a non-violent offense. “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.”

As a result of his refusal to cut his hair, Warsoldier has lost visitation rights, has been removed from prison vocational courses, and is prohibited from receiving quarterly packages, among other sanctions.

The ACLU of Southern California and cooperating attorneys with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen are asking the court to prohibit prison officials from enforcing the grooming policy against Warsoldier. In addition, all disciplinary sanctions imposed on Warsoldier as a consequence of his non-compliance with the grooming policy should be rescinded.

“Bingham McCutchen has a long history of providing pro bono representation to California prison inmates in such areas as health care, disability accommodations, and systemic due process violations,” said Nora Cregan, a partner in Bingham McCutchen’s San Francisco office and chair of the firm’s pro bono committee.

“Warsoldier’s case extends that commitment to the area of religious freedom, and we are proud to team with the ACLU to represent Warsoldier in his effort to vindicate his right to practice his religion,” she added. “There is no reason why prison officials cannot accommodate Warsoldier’s sincere religious beliefs that require him not to cut his hair.”

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