Court affirms Shoshone-Bannock man's religious rights

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COLUMBUS, Ohio - An Ohio prison guard of Shoshone-Bannock descent fought the law and, apparently, the law lost.

The law was an Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections regulation requiring male prison guards wear their hair short. On May 24, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled 6 to 1 that Wendell Humphrey could, by the dictates of his religious beliefs, wear his hair long and keep his job at the Hocking Correctional Facility near Nelsonville.

"I won a 6 to 1 victory by the Supreme Court, and I'm told that's the first time that's ever happened," Humphrey said on receiving the news from his attorney Kathleen Trafford.

Writing for the majority, Justice Paul E. Pfeiffer observed that the state had not challenged Native American spirituality's practice that a man's hair should only be cut when a relative dies. Justice Deborah Cook, the lone dissenter, cited a 1990 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that held that citizens should be required to obey laws that are not written to promote or suppress religious beliefs. Oddly, the Ohio Supreme Court justice said the 1990 decision overrode the Ohio Constitution's recognition of an individual's "right of conscience."

The decision caps a lengthy legal battle initiated in 1997 when Humphrey was first told he must either cut his hair or lose his job. Humphrey, a model employee who repeatedly received recognition as such, attempted to comply with the regulations by tucking his hair under his hat. In his first hearing, Humphrey, wearing his uniform into the court, was asked by Judge Thomas Gerken why he had cut his hair. After removing his prison guard cap, Humphrey's hair cascaded down. The judge upheld Humphrey's practice of concealing his hair under a cap.

After the 4th Ohio District Court of Appeals overturned Gerken's ruling, the corrections officer's case went to the Ohio Supreme Court.

"We're all going to have a big Wopila on 4th of July weekend," Humphrey said. "We're going to have a big weekend, feed some people, and thank everyone who supported me." Humphrey owns 80 acres just outside of Nelsonville where his sweat lodge is located.

"It all came through prayer," he said, "through our Chanupa."