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Ware v. Louisiana Department of Corrections

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 28, 2017

CHRISTOPHER JEROME WARE, Plaintiff - Appellant
v.
LOUISIANA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS; JAMES LEBLANC, Defendants - Appellees

         Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before KING, PRADO, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.

          KING, CIRCUIT JUDGE:

         Plaintiff-Appellant Christopher Ware is an inmate in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections and an adherent of the Rastafari religion. As a tenet of his religion, Ware took a vow to not cut or style his hair. In the ensuing years, Ware's hair has formed into dreadlocks that fall past his shoulders. Department of Corrections grooming policies prohibit inmates housed in a Department of Corrections prison from having dreadlocks. Ware filed suit seeking a declaration that the Department of Corrections grooming policies violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and an injunction against the grooming policies being applied to him. After a bench trial, the district court denied Ware's requested declaratory and injunctive relief. Because we conclude that the Department of Corrections failed to satisfy its burden to show the polices are the least restrictive means of serving a compelling interest, we REVERSE the district court's judgment and RENDER judgment for Ware.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         A. Facts

         Christopher Ware, an adherent of the Rastafari religion, is currently an inmate in the custody of the Louisiana Department of Corrections (DOC). As an exercise of his Rastafari faith, around 2011 or early 2012, Ware took a vow not to cut or style the hair on his head. Since taking this vow, Ware has allowed his hair to continue to grow and form dreadlocks, and he would "[n]ot willingly" cut these dreadlocks. Ware describes his dreadlocks as compacted strands of "coarse-feeling" and "flexible" hair. Each dreadlock is no more than one-quarter inch thick. At the time of the bench trial, Ware had approximately 16 dreadlocks, each of which extended in length to just below his shoulders. Ware maintains his dreadlocks by keeping them separated at his scalp, but they form on their own-he does not braid or otherwise style them.

         Ware is in DOC's custody while serving two concurrent sentences of 40 years of hard labor resulting from a 2014 conviction (through a guilty plea) for two counts of sexual battery. Ware is currently incarcerated at Bossier Parish Medium Security Jail (Bossier)-a facility run by the Bossier Parish Sheriff- but, due to the length of his sentence, must be transferred to a prison run by DOC.[1] Bossier permits Ware's dreadlocks but, upon transfer to a DOC prison, Ware will be subject to DOC regulations (the grooming policies), which the parties stipulate do not permit Ware's dreadlocks. Furthermore, the grooming policies do not allow for any religious exemption.

         B. Proceedings

         Facing imminent transfer to a DOC prison, Ware filed suit against DOC and its secretary, James LeBlanc (collectively, DOC), in June 2014. His complaint alleged that the grooming policies impose a substantial burden on his religious practice of not cutting or styling his hair (resulting in his dreadlocks) and are not the least restrictive means of achieving any compelling interest. It sought declaratory and injunctive relief under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), namely a declaration that application of the grooming policies violated his rights and a prohibition against DOC's punishing him for refusing to cut his hair.

         The district court held a two-day bench trial in February 2016 at which eight witnesses testified. On September 12, 2016, the district court denied Ware's request for declaratory and injunctive relief and dismissed his complaint with prejudice. The district court concluded that the grooming policies were the least restrictive means of achieving four legitimate and compelling DOC interests: (1) contraband control, (2) offender identification, (3) offender hygiene, and (4) inmate and employee safety. Accordingly, the district court concluded that the grooming policies' prohibition on Ware's dreadlocks did not violate RLUIPA. Ware timely appeals.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Following a bench trial, we review the district court's findings of fact for clear error and its conclusion of law de novo. Ali v. Stephens, 822 F.3d 776, 783 (5th Cir. 2016). In the RLUIPA context specifically, the question of whether the prison has met its burden is "best characterized as a mixed question of fact and law . . . subject to de novo review" because the answer is "highly dependent on a number of underlying factual issues." Id. at 784 (quoting Garner v. Kennedy, 713 F.3d 237, 242 (5th Cir. 2013)). Accordingly, we review the district court's factual findings for clear error but review de novo "its application of those findings in determining whether the challenged government action is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means to advancing that interest." Id.

         III. DISCUSSION

         Ware argues that DOC's grooming policies as applied to him violate RLUIPA. As an initial matter, we lay out the statutory backdrop ...


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