LOS ANGELES - In a stinging rebuke to the California Department of Corrections today, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ordered the release of Billy Soza Warsoldier, a Cahuilla Native American who had refused to cut his hair short on religious grounds, from the Adelanto Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, California. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, together with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, had filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Warsoldier after learning that he was being penalized for practicing his religion, a central tenet of which is the prohibition of cutting his hair except upon the death of a loved one. Mr. Warsoldier was denied visitation rights and other privileges for refusing to comply with the Department of Corrections' grooming policy, which stipulates that male inmates must keep their hair no longer than three inches.
The religious liberty suit was filed on behalf of Mr. Warsoldier on March 31st, 2004. On May 3, a federal district court sided with the state, denying Mr. Warsoldier's request for an injunction barring enforcement of the policy against him. At that time, Mr. Warsoldier was scheduled to be released from prison on May 21, 2004.
Only after the district court had denied the injunction was Mr. Warsoldier informed that, as a direct consequence of his refusal to violate his religion, he would be additionally punished by an extension of his time in prison until July 7, at the soonest. On May 21 - the date Mr. Warsoldier was to be released - the ACLU and Bingham McCutchen filed an emergency motion in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting that Mr. Warsoldier's punishments - including his additional prison time - be withdrawn immediately. The court granted the emergency request and ordered the state to release Mr. Warsoldier while his appeal is pending.
"We're very gratified by the court's decision," said Ben Wizner, staff attorney with the ACLU of Southern California. "Delaying Mr. Warsoldier's release for even one day as punishment for his adherence to his faith was a gross violation of his rights. We'll continue to fight this unjust policy until no inmate is made to suffer for practicing his religion."
Billy Soza Warsoldier is currently incarcerated at the Adelanto Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, California. Mr. Warsoldier is a Cahuilla Native American. Both the Cahuilla tribe and the federal government have recognized his status as a Cahuilla. According to Mr. Warsoldier's faith, his long hair embodies the strength and wisdom he has acquired over his lifetime, and he would lose that strength and wisdom, and jeopardize his status in the afterlife, if he were to cut it. Therefore, since 1971, Mr. Warsoldier has cut his hair only once, upon his father's death in 1980.
"I don't understand why I'm being punished for practicing my faith," said Billy Soza Warsoldier, at the time the case was filed. "My tradition tells me that if I cut my hair, I may face taunting and ridicule from deceased members of my tribe. I would prefer to take the state's punishment than violate my faith."