CWRU Law students file religious freedom case involving cutting of inmate’s dreadlocks

From left, Anthony Cirranello, Jr., Tianjiao Han and Punam Chatterjee

Case Western Reserve University School of Law’s Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic, representing an Ohio inmate who practices Rastafarianism, has sued the director of the state prison system and five other officials, claiming they violated his civil rights by punishing him for exercising his religion and forcibly cutting his dreadlocks and preventing him from keeping other requirements of his faith.

The Clinic represents Cecil Koger, a 35-year-old inmate in the Trumbull Correctional Institution in Leavittsburg. The complaint was filed by professor of law Avidan Cover and student interns Punam Chatterjee, Anthony Cirranello, Jr., and Tianjiao Han on November 16 in the U.S District Court for the Northern District of Ohio, Eastern Division.

“The students have done a tremendous amount of work on the case,” Cover said, “from interviewing the client on a number of occasions at the prison and making public records requests from the state and prison to researching the law and drafting the complaint.

The law suit contends that the state of Ohio prison system’s prohibition on the long, matted hair has been arbitrarily enforced and results from the state prison’s refusal to recognize Rastafarianism as a legitimate religion in violation of religious freedom guaranteed by the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The complaint also contends that Ohio has made allowances for many other religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Asatru, a modern revival of ancient Norse paganism, but disfavors Rastafarianism.

“Both the framers of the Constitution and Congress have seen to fit to protect religious freedom,” Cirranello said. “We should protect all citizens from unreasonable governmental intrusion and any constitutional violations, no matter their faith or status in society.”

The suit claims Koger has been a “committed member of the Nyahbinghi Rastafarian Order” since 2000. “Cecil’s dreadlocks are part of his identity; his family has been practicing Rastafarianism for generations,” Han said.

Rastafarianism began in the slums of Jamaica in the 1920s, and while there is no formal organized leadership, its adherents generally believe in the divinity or messiahship of Haile Selassie and emphasize Jamaican culture and African heritage. It is also considered an Abrahamic religion, referencing portions of the Old Testament from both Jewish and Christian traditions.

The vast majority of other state prison systems, as well as the federal Bureau of Prisons, either recognize Rastafarianism as a religion and allow dreadlocks or afford Rastafarian inmates an opportunity to at least apply for religious accommodations such as dreadlocks.

“Ohio is woefully out of step when it comes to respecting prison inmates’ religious freedom as guaranteed by federal law,” Cover said. “Ohio’s prison system needs to get in line with the vast majority of states that either protect Rastafarian observances or at least limit religious practices as little as possible.”

Case Western Reserve law school’s clinics allow for third-year law students to actively participate in legal cases under the supervision of law professors instead of merely researching or observing.

CWRU was among the nation’s first law schools to start such a program, and today the Milton A. Kramer Law Clinic Center, which houses the human rights clinic and others, handles more than 100 cases a year, amounting to about 16,000 hours of pro bono legal work. Under the law school’s capstone requirement, every student participates in one of the school’s seven clinics or undertakes an externship. CWRU has been recognized as a national leader in experiential education by U.S. News and World Report and National Jurist magazine.