Supreme Court sides with inmate, strikes down Arkansas prison beard ban

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

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

The U.S. 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.WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled a religious-freedom law permits a Muslim convict to grow a half-inch beard, rejecting objections from Arkansas prison officials who claimed inmates could hide contraband in facial hair.

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. In a 9-0 opinion the Court ruled that part of the Arkansas prison policy violates a federal statute designed to protect the religious freedom of prisoners, NBC reports. 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 mustaches—and that more than 40 other federal and state prison systems permit half-inch beards for religious or other reasons. 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.

The Arkansas rule was challenged by inmate Gregory Holt, a Muslim who said that he was forced to choose between violating his religious beliefs and facing disciplinary action in prison. 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. While past religious liberty cases have most certainly divided the Supreme Court, interest groups, religious cohorts and the public at large, Holt vs.

Hobbs has actually brought together some unlikely allies, including the Obama administration and many atheist and religious groups who have sided with the inmate. 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.

As TheBlaze previously reported, Holt, who also goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammada, is serving a life sentence for stabbing his ex-girlfriend and for burglary. 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. Both laws create exemptions from statutes that apply to others when they impose a “substantial burden” on religious exercise, unless it furthers a “compelling governmental interest” that cannot be advanced through less restrictive means. 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.

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. On Tuesday, the court said prison security was a compelling interest, but found that Arkansas failed to show there was no other way to attain its goals other than forcing Mr.

The Arkansas case, in contrast, was filed by a self-described Islamic fundamentalist who the state said threatened to wage jihad against law-enforcement officials. 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. Here, the plaintiff was a violent criminal seeking to exercise a minority religion over the objection of prison officials whom the courts traditionally grant broad discretion in managing their institutions. 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. 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.”

Whatever their inmate grooming policies may be, they echoed the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety. 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. Holt’s “religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share [his] belief,” she said, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor . Justice Ginsburg’s Hobby Lobby dissent stressed that thousands of employees who may not share their employer’s religious beliefs could be deprived contraceptive coverage.

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