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Barring head coverings in prison violates federal law, appeals court rules

A man incarcerated at Deerfield Correctional Center and a staff member in Southampton County, Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
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A Virginia prison’s restrictions on head coverings violated the religious beliefs of an incarcerated man, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit ruled Monday.

The policy, a unanimous three-judge panel said, required the man “to either violate his religious beliefs — by refraining from wearing a head covering at all times — or risk discipline.”

Until December 2020, Deerfield Correctional Center in Capron treated all head coverings in the same way, according to the court records — they had to be removed in the dining hall, visiting room, administrative building and other designated locations unless engaged in “an approved religious activity.” At the time, the Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) allowed individual prisons to decide their own policies on head coverings.

After David Richardson sued, VDOC issued a new policy allowing head coverings anywhere in the prison as long as those incarcerated removed them when requested for a search. But he is still seeking a court order to prevent a reversion to the old policy. An attorney for the state said at oral argument that the “ability to change a policy certainly exists,” but VDOC “has no intention to go back.”

The court declined to decide whether federal law allows for an injunction against Virginia barring a reinstatement of the head covering restrictions. Under the Religious Land Use And Institutionalized Persons Act, a state government can avoid having its laws preempted by a federal court by changing a policy that infringes on religious rights.

That question was only raised on appeal, the court said, so it must be decided first by the district court judge overseeing the case.

That judge, Henry E. Hudson, previously ruled that Richardson did not show that the prior policy imposed a substantial burden on his religious rights because he “retained the ability to wear a head covering in many areas of the prison” and because the “restrictions were rationally related to the penological objective of security and policing for contraband.”

The appellate court disagreed. Richardson said in his complaint that he has for several decades followed a “multi-denominational” belief system that “incorporates practices from the Jewish, Catholic, Buddhist, and Islamic traditions,” including wearing a Muslim cap known as a kufi.

“Richardson holds a sincerely held belief that his religion requires that he wear a head covering at all times and in all places,” the judges wrote. “Deerfield’s head covering policy placed Richardson between the proverbial rock and a hard place."