Religious Rights Of Prisoners Upheld By Supreme Court

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday that an Arkansas prison violated a Muslim prisoner’s rights by forbidding him to grow the half-inch beard he said was required by his religion reports the LA Times.

The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by the Arkansas Department of Correction. Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man’s religious right according to USA Today.

Gregory Holt is serving a life sentence in prison for burglary and domestic battery. The Arkansas Department of Corrections bans beards (except for medical necessity) because, it says, they can be used to hide dangerous items like razor blades and needles and can be grown or removed for purposes of disguise.

Holt argued that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, he is entitled to grow whiskers in accordance with his faith. A federal district court and a federal appeals court were not persuaded. They insisted on leaving the matter up to the people charged with running the prisons.

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state’s no-beard policy.

“Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a half-inch beard, and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes,” Alito said. “Nevertheless, the department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot or naked.”

The Chicago Tribune reports Alito is not a staunch friend of prison reformers. In a case involving the treatment of inmates in California, he wrote scornfully, “The Constitution does not give federal judges the authority to run state penal systems. Decisions regarding state prisons have profound public safety and financial implications, and the states are generally free to make these decisions as they choose.”

Tuesday’s decision was expected. It clarifies the importance — and limits — of federal laws providing a measure of protection for religious practice over and above what the 1st Amendment requires. The ruling extended the high court’s reverence for religious beliefs and observances.

In its last term, the justices allowed family-owned businesses with religious objections to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives, and they upheld prayers at municipal government meetings according to USA Today.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a one-paragraph concurrence to point out what she deemed the difference between Holt’s religious rights and the more intrusive health insurance exemption sought and won by Hobby Lobby and other businesses in a controversial 5-4 decision last June.

“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.

[Image via Times of Israel]