Supreme Court says Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas has right to grow short …

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

Gregory Holt, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas, won the Supreme Court’s stamp of approval to grow and maintain a beard behind bars, in accordance with his religious beliefs.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.The court’s unanimous ruling on 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 healthcare overhaul.

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 said that inmate Gregory Holt could maintain a half-inch beard because Arkansas prison officials could not substantiate claims that the beard posed a security risk. 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. 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.

Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that Arkansas can satisfy its security concerns in some other way when “so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security”. 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.

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’s no-beard rule. 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 said the state’s prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a “neatly trimmed mustache” violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalised Persons Act.

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. Holt is serving his life sentence – for domestic battery and burglary – at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas department of correction.

Americans United for Separation of Church and State — a watchdog not known for siding very often with the Becket Fund — released a similar statement praising the 9-0 decision, calling the prison system’s rules against racial hair “irrational and arbitrary.”

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