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Sixth Circuit Reverses and Allows Ohio Prisoner’s Civil Rights Lawsuit to Proceed

The court’s July 7, 2020, opinion was issued in an appeal brought by prisoner Cecil Koger, who is a practicing Rastafarian. Between 2006 and 2018, Koger submitted numerous requests, appeals, and letters to the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) asking for religious accommodations and exemptions. All were denied. He filed suit on November 16, 2017, alleging violations of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.

Koger was subjected to four forced cuttings of his dreadlocks. but that was not at issue. Instead, the issue was the validity of ODRC’s grooming policy, which went into effect on October 22, 2018. That policy was in response to a declaration in Glenn v. Ohio Dep’t of Rehab. & Corr., 2018 WL 2197884 (N.D. Ohio 2018), which challenged ODRC’s policy of categorically denying dreadlocks, that found ODRC’s grooming policy violated RLUIPA and enjoined its enforcement.

Koger argued his dreadlocks naturally grow thicker than the allowed half-inch under the new policy. “Koger, however, has not alleged or offered evidence demonstrating that his hair is unsearchable, naturally grows to be unsearchable, or that ODRC has or will deem it to be unsearchable,” the Sixth Circuit wrote in affirming judgment on the issue.

As to Koger’s claim that his religion requires an Ital diet and fasting, the court found there was no dispute those requests were grounded in seriously held religious belief. For years, Koger detailed his dietary needs and the fasting requirement to ODRC. The court found he sufficiently showed ODRC “burdened his religious practices of fasting and keeping an Ital diet.” It also concluded that Koger sufficiently alleged an equal protection claim because other religions’ fasting needs were accommodated but Koger’s was not because he practices Rastafarianism.

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Related legal case

Koger v. Mohr