Supreme Court upholds religious rights of prisoners

20 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Prison Beard Ban Tossed as Supreme Court Backs Religious Rights.

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. 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 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 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. 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 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. 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. 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.

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. 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.

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. 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. Whatever their inmate grooming policies may be, they echoed the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety.

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