HOUSTON (AP) – A court should not have dismissed a convicted sexual offender’s lawsuit alleging prison officials violated his Native American religious beliefs by prohibiting him from carrying a medicine pouch or growing a patch of hair on the back of his head, a federal appeals court has ruled.
The ruling by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sends the case of Shawn Odneal, identified in court documents as a “Native American religious practitioner,” back to a district court for additional proceedings.
Odneal, 38, is serving two concurrent life prison sentences for two counts of aggravated sexual assault of a child from Jefferson County. He’s an inmate at the McConnell Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice near Beeville.
Odneal, a member of the Choctaw nation, filed his suit in 2004, alleging Texas Department of Criminal Justice officials were violating his constitutional rights to practice his religion and violating provisions of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which protects religious practices of prisoners.
Prison officials argued that security concerns allow them to mandate hair length and restrict the carrying of a medicine pouch, that the corrections agency’s policy doesn’t substantially burden Odneal’s religious practices and that Odneal never claimed he needed to wear the pouch at all times.
Odneal has been barred from growing a kouplock, a patch of hair at the base of the skull that symbolizes long hair. He is allowed to carry the medicine pouch only during religious ceremonies and in his cell.
In its ruling Friday, the three judges on a panel of the 5th Circuit said they didn’t know the size of the kouplock Odneal wanted to grow and that a district court judge who threw out the suit used a wrong case as a precedent.
“There may be distinctions, unexplored by the district court on this record, between the security risks presented by prisoners maintaining a full head of long hair and those wearing a small patch of long hair at the base of their skulls,” the court said.
Regarding the medicine pouch, the appeals court said prison officials may be correct in their security concerns, “but we cannot say that TDCJ’s restrictions are appropriate as a matter of law.”
Odneal also argued the prison system improperly was restricting religious services for him and 18 other Native Americans. The court, however, upheld the lower court dismissal of that issue because records show infrequency of services for Native Americans at the McConnell Unit are “due to a dearth of outside volunteers rather than any regulation directly prohibiting these ceremonies.”
Prison rules require, and courts have upheld the rule, that outside volunteers must be present during religious service at prisons.