Thursday, April 25, 2002

Prison employee sues to save hair

By Sheila McLaughlin,
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LEBANON — A psychology assistant at the Warren Correctional Institution (WCI) has sued the warden and the state corrections director, saying a grooming policy that bans long hair for male prison employees violates his religious beliefs.

        Robert Luken's suit in Warren County Common Pleas Court comes two years after the Ohio Supreme Court ruled in favor of Native American guard Wendell Humphrey, who fought orders to cut his hair, citing religious reasons.

        “This is an extension of that,” Mr. Luken's attorney, Jeffrey Silverstein, said Wednesday, a day after filing the suit. “The issue now is whether anyone not aligned with a particular denomination has the same right of conscience.”

        In the Humphrey case, the Supreme Court ruled that long hair is a central tenet of Native American spirituality because native people believe a man's hair should not be cut unless he is in mourning.

        “Basically, that was a very narrow decision because it is only the Native American religion. My guy is saying that long hair is also sacrosanct to me by virtue of my right of conscience,” Mr. Luken said.

        A spokesman for the Ohio Attorney General's Office declined comment, but said state attorneys were aware of the lawsuit although they had not yet been served.

        “We're not going to get into that right now. We'll make our argument when the time comes,” said Bret Crow, noting that the state has until late May to file a response with the court.

        In court documents, Mr. Luken, who wears his near-shoulder-length hair in a ponytail, said he does not subscribe to organized religion, but has developed his own spiritual plan.

        He said he believes that “spirituality is a private matter between each person and their creator.

        “To grow my hair long and groom it simply is a reminder to live simply and avoid excessive pride,” the 53-year-old Dayton man wrote in “A Note on My Spiritual Development,” which is filed with the complaint.

        The note was written and distributed to WCI officials to support Mr. Luken's objections to the grooming policy. He sought, but was denied, a waiver based on religious beliefs, the suit says.

        According to the complaint, Mr. Luken has been suspended three times since April 2001 and now faces firing for refusing to comply with the grooming policy. He is currently on sick leave, his attorney said.

        The policy, instituted in 1999, requires male non-uniformed personnel to keep their hair cut above the collar and over the ears.

        The lawsuit also contends that the policy is unconstitutional because female employees don't have to abide by the same rules.


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