Supreme Court Rules for Bearded Muslim Inmate

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Prison Beard Ban Tossed as Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruling has invalidated an Arkansas state prison rule that barred inmates from growing beards measuring more than a quarter of an inch long.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.WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously struck down an Arkansas prison ban on inmate beards, in a remarkable legal victory for an habitual offender-turned-devout Muslim who started off representing himself. Supreme Court said a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas has a legal right to grow a half-inch beard, backing religious rights and rejecting the state’s contention that facial hair would pose a security risk.

In an emphatic 9-0 decision, the court’s liberals and conservatives united in concluding the prison’s grooming policy violated the religious rights of the prisoner known both as Gregory Holt and Abdul Maalik Muhammad. As The Becket Fund points out, many prisons have barred Jewish inmates from wearing yarmulkes, denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession, and shut down Evangelical Bible studies. The justices unanimously ruled that the state’s no-beard policy violated a 2000 federal law that requires prison officials to accommodate the religious practices of inmates when feasible. The high court ruled unanimously today in favor of Gregory Holt, who goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammed and identifies as a devout Salafist Muslim. In response to these and many other displays of religious suppression, an overwhelmingly bipartisan Congress enacted a landmark civil rights statute, which was signed by President Clinton in 2000: the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

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. The prison bans all facial hair for prisoners, ostensibly for security purposes — although prisoners suffering from skin conditions are given an exception and allowed to grow quarter-inch beards. “Prisons have unique security concerns, but that doesn’t mean they can impose irrational and arbitrary rules on inmates that infringe on religious freedom,” said the Rev. 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. He was convicted of slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat and stabbing her in the chest, and has threatened to “wage jihad” against various individuals.

Of course, prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison, but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity due to the arbitrary whims of prison officials. Holt, who did time for making a threat against President Bush’s daughters before being convicted in 2010 of knifing his girlfriend, was sentenced to life in prison in 2010. 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. Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God. The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said the state has a legitimate need to prevent the concealment of contraband, which was its stated reason for the policy.

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. 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. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head,” Alito said.

The brief rejected the argument that Holt’s request for a beard poses a security concern, noting that prison officials presented no evidence that a modest beard could ever put inmates or guards in danger or make it easier for Holt to escape. 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. Myriad allies subsequently lined up in support of Holt, ranging from the Obama administration to a former warden at California’s San Quentin State Prison.

During oral argument last October, Holt was represented by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock, a prominent advocate in religious liberty cases. The law states the government cannot impose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of an inmate unless it is the “least restrictive means” of meeting a “compelling government interest.” A key question was how much deference should be granted to prison authorities in keeping facilities secure. Whatever their inmate grooming policies may be, they echoed the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety.

The first monograph of the 2002 Christian Social Thought Series defines the relationship between economic or social justice and the classical understanding of justice as a virtue.

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