Supreme Court rules for bearded Muslim inmate

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. Supreme Court sided on Tuesday with a Muslim inmate who has argued for years that he should be permitted to maintain a short beard for religious purposes while residing inside the Arkansas state prison system.

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 outcome underscored how the high court under Chief Justice John Roberts has grown more deferential to religious pleas for exemption from general laws, reports WSJ’s Jess Bravin: The prison’s argument “is hard to take seriously,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court, noting the prison permits quarter-inch beards for medical reasons and moustaches—and that more than 40 other federal and state prison systems permit half-inch beards for religious or other reasons.

Justice Alito also rejected the Arkansas prison’s claim the beard ban helped ensure rapid identification of prisoners, since they could change their appearance quickly by shaving facial hair. Hobbs, Director Arkansas Department of Corrections, ruling that prisoner Gregory Holt’s half-inch beard, which he maintains in observance of the Islamic faith, doesn’t pose a security risk, the Associated Press reported.

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. While past religious liberty cases have most certainly divided the Supreme Court, interest groups, religious cohorts and the public at large, Holt vs.

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. In ruling for inmate Gregory Holt (pictured above), who now goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, Justice Alito drew heavily on his 2014 Hobby Lobby opinion granting for-profit businesses a religious exemption from Affordable Care Act regulations requiring workplace health plans to cover contraceptives. Hobbs has actually brought together some unlikely allies, including the Obama administration and many atheist and religious groups who have sided with the inmate.

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. Prison staff initially cited security concerns in defending their reasoning, claiming that inmates like Holt could use facial hair to conceal weapons, among other security issues, the New York Times reported last year.

Both the federal district and appeals courts ruled against Holt, even though a magistrate who heard testimony said it was “almost preposterous” to think he could hide a weapon in his beard. 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. While other recent religious freedom cases largely involved Christian denominations or their followers, this one centered on a self-described Islamic fundamentalist. Alito argued that “so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security,” leading the court to believe that security can be assured in some other way, the AP reported.

Following the ruling on Tuesday, the Becket Fund released a statement claiming that the court’s decision means that prison staff “cannot arbitrarily ban peaceful religious practices,” calling the win “a landmark victory for religious freedom for all faiths.” “This is not just a win for one prisoner in Arkansas, but a win for all Americans who value religious liberty,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, said in a statement following the ruling.

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