(Reuters) - A former prisoner can sue a state prison employee for ordering him to shear his dreadlocks, a federal appeals court ruled on Friday.

A Chicago appeals court revived a lawsuit by ex-inmate Omar Grayson against Harold Schuler, an official at Big Muddy Correctional Center in Illinois who required Grayson to cut his hair. Grayson claimed the haircut violated his right to practice his religion.

Schuler ordered the dreadlocks cut in 2008 on grounds that they posed a security threat, but did not explain why. Grayson, a member of the African Hebrew Israelites of Jerusalem, refused to comply ad was sent to the prison's segregation unit.

Under Illinois Department of Corrections' policy, only Rastafarians were allowed to wear dreadlocks, the court opinion said. A prison chaplain concluded that Grayson's religion did not strictly forbid the cutting of hair.

But the appeals court ruled that the prison could not favor one religion over another in its grooming policy.

"No more can the prison permit Rastafarians to wear long hair and without justification forbid a sincere African Hebrew Israelite to do so, even if he is more zealous in his religious observances than his religion requires him to be," Judge Richard Posner wrote on behalf of the three-judge panel.

Posner included an image of reggae singer and Rastafarian Bob Marley, dreadlocks akimbo, in the opinion. The judge noted that "dreadlocks can attain a formidable length and density," and the matted locks could be used to conceal a shank or other contraband. But those security risks did not justify the discrimination against one faith over another, he wrote.

The Office of the Illinois Attorney General did not respond to requests for comment.

Grayson, who handled his own appeal after the court denied his request for a lawyer, could not immediately be reached for comment.

(Editing by Greg McCune)

[Image by DaveDread, Creative Commons Licensed.]

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