Supreme Court says Muslim prisoner can keep beard

21 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Prison Beard Ban Violates Muslim Religious Rights, Supreme Court Rules.

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court is siding with a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who sued for the right to grow a short beard for religious reasons.A unanimous Supreme Court said on Tuesday that Arkansas can’t dictate the length of a beard maintained by a Muslim prisoner, after he made his own case initially to the Court using a handwritten form. 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.

The court ruled that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), state prison officials are required to offer an accommodation whenever a prison policy substantially burdens an inmate’s religious exercise. 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. — In a 7-2 ruling, sided with Teva Pharmaceutical Industries Ltd. in the company’s high-stakes patent dispute with rival firms over top-selling multiple sclerosis drug Copaxone. Courts will uphold the prison policy when officials are able to demonstrate that it constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interest. — Ruled that lower courts should take another look at an appeal from a Missouri man on death row for killing a woman and her two children 16 years ago.

— Refused to hear a challenge from retailers who claim the Federal Reserve allows banks to charge businesses too much for handling so-called “swipe fees” in consumer debit card transactions. Arkansas corrections officials said they enforced a no-beards policy in furtherance of their compelling interest in maintaining safety and security at the prison, including preventing smuggling of contraband. Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the court, called the state’s justifications “hard to swallow.” He noted that prison systems in the vast majority of states, and in the federal system, all allow prisoners to grow beards. — Declined to halt a lawsuit against a Louisiana Roman Catholic church and a priest over allegations that a teen was kissed and fondled by an adult church parishioner.

Alito also affirmed that RLUIPA doesn’t require a correctional facility to grant religious exemptions simply because a prisoner asks for one, or because other prisons grant exceptions. — Turned away three appeals from military contractor KBR Inc. that sought to dismiss lawsuits over a soldier’s electrocution in Iraq and open-air burn pits in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a short but pointed concurring opinion noting the difference between the prison beards case, and last June’s highly controversial Supreme Court decision allowing for-profit corporations that object to contraception to bar contraceptive insurance coverage for their employees. The difference, she said, is that in this case, accommodating the prisoner’s religious beliefs “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share [his] belief.” Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined the concurrence and also wrote separately to stress the danger of the prison environment.

But Arkansas, she said, “offered little more than unsupported assertions in defense of its refusal of petitioner’s requested religious accommodation.” Holt, also known as Abdul Malik Muhammad, is serving a life sentence for domestic violence and burglary, after he was convicted of cutting his girlfriend’s throat and stabbing her in the chest. She emphasized that some deference is due to prison officials who design rules for that environment and can offer a “plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them.” Religious rights advocates hailed Tuesday’s decision. “The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today: [government] doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices,” said Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Arkansas prisoner in the case.

In Arkansas, prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems, but ban beards in other cases. They noted that the prison staff had provided several other accommodations to allow the inmate to practice his religion, including providing a prayer rug, access to religious materials, the ability to correspond with a religious advisor, special Islam-authorized foods, and observance of religious holidays. Philadelphia’s National Constitution Center is the first and only nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed: the U.S. A federal magistrate, a federal judge, and a panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the prison officials that they were not required to provide a religious exemption from their no-beard policy.

Constitution Daily, the Center’s blog, offers smart commentary and conversation about constitutional issues in the news, drawing insights from America’s history and a variety of expert contributors. 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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