LOS ANGELES - In a strong ruling in favor of religious liberty, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals maintained that the California prison system's ban on long hair for male prisoners violated the religious freedom of a former inmate, who is Native American.

A three-judge panel reversed a lower court decision and held that the California Department of Corrections had failed to demonstrate that the restriction on hair length was necessary to security, especially with respect to a prisoner in a minimum security facility.

"This is a great victory for religious freedom," said Peter Eliasberg, the ACLU of Southern California's Manheim Attorney for First Amendment Rights. "The Ninth Circuit recognized that the Department of Corrections cannot rely on unsubstantiated fears to prevent prisoners from abiding by their deeply held religious beliefs."

The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, together with the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, originally filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Billy Soza Warsoldier, a Cahuilla Native American, 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. While held in the Adelanto Community Correctional Facility in Adelanto, California, 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.

Warsoldier, who lives in Riverside and owns a gallery owner said the decision was a victory for Indian men. "I was just upholding something I have always believed in," he said.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Warsoldier in March 2004. After a federal district court sided with the state and denied Warsoldier's request for a preliminary injunction barring enforcement of the policy against him, Warsoldier was 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 the day Warsoldier was to be released in 2004, the ACLU of Southern California and Bingham McCutchen filed an emergency motion in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, requesting that Warsoldier's punishments - including his additional prison time - be withdrawn immediately. The court granted the emergency request and ordered the state to release Warsoldier.

"Today's ruling sends a clear message to the Department of Corrections that it must change its policy in order to respect religious freedom," Eliasberg added.