Rastafarians and the Free Exercise of Religion

Most Americans asked about Rastafarianism think of unbridled marijuana (ganja) consumption, dreadlocks, and the musical idiom of reggae. Not surprisingly, dreadlocks and marijuana have most often brought Rastafarians within the ambit of the U.S. legal system. Therein, their arguments that both practices are protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion have not generally fallen on fertile ground.

Leonard P. Howell (1898–1981) is generally credited as the founder of Rastafarianism, and the date of its origin is generally set in 1932, when Howell returned to the then-British colony of Jamaica from New York City proclaiming Haile Selassie, the newly crowned Emperor of Ethiopia, to be the Black Messiah. Without question, the spread of Rastafarianism outside Jamaica, beginning in the 1970s, was spearheaded by the popularity of reggae, particularly as performed by Bob Marley and the Wailers.

Howell’s movement was strongly influenced by another Jamaican native, Marcus Garvey, who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and made it the largest black movement in history. Another influence was Athlyi Rogers, author of The Holy Piby. The influence of Rogers’ ‘‘Blackman’s Bible’’ was so strong, in fact, that Howell has been often accused of plagiarizing from it in his Promised Key. Both Rogers and Howell attempted to add a religious component to Garvey’s social and political vision of social redemption and economic power for Africans.

The tenets of Rastafarianism include the holiness of Haile Selassie (before he was crowned king of Ethiopia in 1930, Selassie’s name was Tafari and his rank was ras [chief]; hence, the term Rastafarian); Afrocentrism and repatriation to Ethiopia; black pride; the wearing of dreadlocks and/or similarly matted beards; a special diet that took various forms by various followers but could be vegetarian and if not, at least avoided pork, prohibited alcohol and tobacco, avoided processed foods, and prohibited eating of foods prepared by women who were menstruating; nonviolence; and the smoking of marijuana as a religious sacrament. Rastafarians cite passages in the Christian Bible that support various beliefs, in particular the wearing of dreadlocks and the use of marijuana.

The first hurdle in any free exercise case is establishing that the belief system in question qualifies as a ‘‘religion,’’ and Rastafarianism has been considered— or at least assumed to be—a religion since at least the mid-1980s in the lower courts and by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in United States v. Bauer (1996), which noted that it was included in Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions. Nevertheless, Rastafarian litigants are hindered by the fact that the smoking of marijuana and, to a lesser extent, the wearing of dreadlocks, have been adopted by a number of non-Rastafarians.

In a series of prison and school cases, Rastafarians have most often been denied the right to wear dreadlocks. Although Rastafarians enjoyed mixed success in lower courts in New York—in one case they were allowed to tie back their hair for prison photos but were required to shave their beards—more typical was the Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, which upheld prison safety arguments, including the argument that long hair would incite homosexual attacks, to justify cutting dreadlocks in Wilson v. Schillinger (1985). Free exercise cases involving dreadlocks have also been rejected in a number of federal district courts but have never faced Supreme Court scrutiny.

Similarly, the argument that Rastafarian use of marijuana is protected by the First Amendment has been rejected. Marijuana use falls squarely within the ambit of the ‘‘Smith test’’ of Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1990), the controversial case in which the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Scalia writing for the majority, held that sacramental consumption of the hallucinogen peyote by members of the Native American Church was not protected by the free exercise clause because religious beliefs do not exempt one from ‘‘compliance with an otherwise valid law prohibiting conduct that the State is free to regulate.’’ The free exercise justification of marijuana use has been rejected in three federal circuits, and has been distinguished from the use of peyote by members of the Native American Church in a Kansas case (where peyote use is allowed under state law).

KEITH E. SEALING

References and Further Reading

  • Lee, He´le`ne. The First Rasta: Leonard Howell and the Rise of Rastafarianism. Trans. by Lily Davis. Chicago: Lawrence Hill Books, 2003.
  • Maragh, G.G. (Leonard Howell). The Promised Key. Brooklyn, NY: A&B Publishers, [1935] 2001.
  • Rogers, Robert Alythi. The Holy Piby. Kingston, Jamaica: Research Associates School Times Publication, [1924] 2000.
  • O’Brien, Derek, and Vaughan Carter, Chant Down Babylon: Freedom of Religion and the Rastafarian Challenge to Majoritarianism, Journal of Law and Religion 18 (2002): 219.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)
  • Wilson v. Schillinger, 761 F.2d 921 (3d Cir. 1985)

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