Holt said he understands he cannot grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch …

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Gregory Holt, Muslim prisoner, wins Supreme Court OK to wear beard behind bars.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – An Arkansas policy prohibiting inmates from having beards violated the religious rights of a prisoner who had wanted to grow one in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, a unanimous U.S.

WASHINGTON — A Supreme Court that has extended the reach of religion into public life in recent years ruled Tuesday that spirituality can overcome even prison security concerns. Supreme Court justices ruled unanimously Tuesday in favor of Holt, who’s serving a life sentence for stabbing his ex-girlfriend in the chest and neck.

The justices, on a 9-0 vote in a closely watched case involving prisoner Gregory Holt, rejected the state’s reasoning that the policy was needed for security reasons to prevent inmates from concealing contraband. The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state’s no-beard policy. “We readily agree that (the state) has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities,” Alito said. “But the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously.” The ruling extended the high court’s reverence for religious beliefs and observances. In its last term, the justices allowed family-owned businesses with religious objections to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives, and they upheld prayers at municipal government meetings. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a one-paragraph concurrence to point out what she deemed the difference between Holt’s beard and the more intrusive health insurance exemption sought and won by Hobby Lobby and other businesses. “Unlike the exemption this court approved (in Hobby Lobby), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,” she said.

A law passed by Congress in 2000 was intended to protect prisoners’ religious rights, much like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was meant to protect religious freedom in general. The issue before the court was Arkansas’ requirement that prisoners be clean-shaven, unless they have a medical reason for keeping a quarter-inch beard. Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights legal group that helped represent Holt, called the ruling “a huge win for religious freedom.” “What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best,” Rassbach added. While more than 40 state prison systems allow beards in general, Gregory Holt had agreed to keep his to a half-inch — virtually negating the chance he could hide weapons or contraband in it. Noting that Holt had been granted several other religious concessions, such as a prayer rug, a special diet and holiday observances, the lower courts deferred to the state’s judgment about its security needs.

Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, had convinced the court to hear his case with a 15-page, handwritten petition citing his desire to keep a beard as part of his Muslim faith. “This is a matter of grave importance, pitting the rights of Muslim inmates against a system that is hostile to these views,” he wrote.

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