Supreme Court Stays Out of "Hairy" Dispute

Not known as a place where you'll find lengthy discussions about hair styles, the Supreme Court announced Monday it will not spend any more time examining whether a prisoner has the right to keep his hair long in accordance with religious custom.

Iron Thunderhorse is a Native American who will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars having been convicted of robbery, rape, kidnapping and attempted escape. The tenets of his faith force him to keep his hair long--counter to the grooming rules of his Texas prison.

Lower courts have ruled against Thunderhorse, while recognizing the validity of shamanism and the importance of wearing long hair to that faith. Monday's Supreme Court decision, made without comment, keeps those decisions in place.

In disputes like these, federal judges are required to undergo a two-part test in assessing the challenge. First, a plaintiff must show that a prison policy places a substantial burden on the inmate's ability to practice his or her religion. If proved, then the prison must demonstrate how its policy is the "least restrictive means" necessary for maintaining order.

In Texas, male prisoners are required to have their hair neatly cut up to the back of their neck and head. Female inmates are given a privilege of going to a beauty shop but are barred from any extreme hairstyles.

Lawyers for Thunderhorse argued the Texas policy prohibiting long hair without exception for religious practices is hardly the least restrictive means possible for the prisons to ensure security. They also said the rule is inconsistently applied throughout the state and is completely inapplicable to women.

In asking the high court to stay away from the case, Texas officials defended the rule citing the need to maintain security explaining that inmates with long hair can hide contraband or cut their hair after escaping in an effort to change their appearance. Texas also cast doubt on Thunderhorse's claim that courts across the country are conflicted over the issue. "In light of the detrimental effect of long hair and beards on prison security, and the absence of alternative solutions, circuits that have squarely addressed the issue have held that [federal laws] do not foreclose prison grooming codes," Texas Solicitor General James Ho wrote. "These decisions reflect appropriate deference to prison officials."