NEW ORLEANS — A Louisiana inmate can keep dreadlocks grown as part of his faith, a federal appeals court said Friday.

The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court judge and ruled in favor of Christopher Ware, an adherent of the Rastafari religion, who was represented in court by the American Civil Liberties Union.

The court record says Ware, serving a 40-year state sentence for sexual battery, took a vow not to cut his hair. The state corrections system’s grooming requirements don’t permit dreadlocks.

A three-judge appellate panel, overturning a district judge, said the state Department of Corrections grooming policies, as applied to Ware, violate federal law.

The judges said the Department of Corrections failed to show that it had an important “compelling interest” for requiring Ware to violate his religious beliefs by cutting his hair or that it was using the least restrictive means of achieving such an interest. They also noted that the department houses many of its inmates at local facilities run by local sheriffs, and that it exempted the locally held state inmates from the grooming policy at the request of the Louisiana Sheriff’s Association.

“DOC’s willingness to allow the parish jails an exemption from the grooming policies, merely at the LSA’s request, raises the inference that the grooming policies are not so important after all,” said the opinion written by Judge Carolyn Dineen King, on behalf of herself and Judges Edward Prado and Leslie Southwick.

Court records say Ware has been held in Bossier Parish, where he has been allowed to keep his dreadlocks during the appeal.

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KEVIN McGILL
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