from the United States District Court for the Western
District of Louisiana
KING, PRADO, and SOUTHWICK, Circuit Judges.
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
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
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.
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. 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
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.
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
STANDARD OF REVIEW
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."
argues that DOC's grooming policies as applied to him
violate RLUIPA. As an initial matter, we lay out the
statutory backdrop ...