Supreme Court rules for Muslim prisoner and religious freedom

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Missouri death row inmate deserves hearing, Supreme Court rules.

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that Arkansas corrections officials had violated the religious liberty rights of Muslim inmates by forbidding them to grow beards. The court’s unanimous ruling Tuesday in a case about religious liberty stands in contrast to the Hobby Lobby case that bitterly divided the justices in June over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women’s contraceptives under the health care overhaul.

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. The justices said inmate Mark Christeson should get a chance to argue that his court-appointed attorneys were ineffective because they missed a 2005 deadline to appeal his conviction in federal court. The rule had been challenged by inmate Gregory Holt, a Muslim man who had asked for permission to grow a half-inch-long beard as a compromise from the full beard he believes is required by his faith. Arkansas officials had argued Holt’s half-inch beard presented a security risk, while Holt’s representatives said a 2000 law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protected his right to grow it. The high court’s decision overturned rulings against the inmate – who is listed in the case as Gregory Holt, but also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad – in district and federal appeals courts.

A group of attorneys argued that Christeson’s court-appointed lawyers, Phil Horwitz and Eric Butts, should be replaced due to a conflict of interest because they would not admit their own ineffectiveness. In 1999, Christeson was found guilty of the rape and murder of Susan Brouk, and the murders of her 12-year-old daughter, Adrian, and nine-year-old son, Kyle.

The plaintiffs countered that the prison made an exception for inmates who required beards for medical reasons, and 43 other prison systems would have allowed his beard. Hobbs has actually brought together some unlikely allies, including the Obama administration and many atheist and religious groups who have sided with the inmate. Christeson’s 17-year-old cousin Carter, then 17, was also implicated in the murders, but was spared the death sentence after he agreed to give evidence for the prosecution against his relative.

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. His case first came to the court’s attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas’ no-beard rule. 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. 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.

In Arkansas, prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems, but ban beards in other cases. While the majority of state prison systems in the United States allow short beards, Arkansas is among the seven states that have much stricter regulations.

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. Muhammad, representing himself, filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith,” the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, the conservative legal firm representing him, announced last year. “Mr. According to court records, Christeson, then 18, and his 17-year-old cousin, Jesse Carter, had planned to run away from a home outside Vichy in central Missouri where they were living with a relative. Even short beards, one official said, could conceal “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts.” Another said that SIM cards for cellphones could also be hidden in beards.

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