By BJC Staff Reports

WASHINGTON — A prisoner has the right to exercise his religious belief by adhering to certain religious grooming standards, according to a brief filed at the U.S. Supreme Court and signed by the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.

The BJC joined the American Jewish Committee and other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the religious rights of Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a practicing Muslim serving a life sentence in Arkansas. Holt says he has a religious obligation to maintain a beard, but the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) has a policy prohibiting facial hair other than neatly trimmed mustaches. It does allow one-quarter-inch beards for inmates with a diagnosed dermatological medical condition. Holt sought permission to grow a one-half-inch beard as a “compromise” but was rejected.

Holt says the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects his right to have a religiously mandated beard while incarcerated. The ADC denied his request, saying an exemption to its policy could create security issues, such as giving an escaped prisoner the ability to change his appearance by shaving, making it easier to distribute contraband or leading to the perception of preferential treatment.

RLUIPA, which became federal law in 2000, was designed to protect the religious freedom of prisoners and other persons in government custody, as well as protect religious freedom in the context of zoning and other land use laws. The law provides that government may substantially burden the exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that it has used the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest. The BJC led a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties groups in supporting RLUIPA, and a unanimous Congress enacted the measure.

The Supreme Court recognized RLUIPA as a permissible accommodation of religion in Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005) that provides “heightened protection” for religious exercise, allowing prisoners to seek religious accommodations under the same standard as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

While prison officials have a compelling interest in maintaining security, the question is whether their refusal to allow a religious exception for a one-half-inch beard is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The ADC only presented hypothetical security concerns and did not show that an exception for Holt would undermine security, despite the fact that he has been allowed to maintain a one-half-inch beard since winning a preliminary injunction in October 2011.

The vast majority of states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons permit inmates to maintain certain beards for religious reasons, and, as noted in the brief, Arkansas is one of just seven states that does not allow “incarcerated Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Rastafarians, and other individuals to grow beards in accordance with their beliefs.” Under the ADC’s policy, the prisoner “must choose between violating one of the key tenets of his religious beliefs or refusing the shave, which would undoubtedly lead to punishment or the withholding of benefits.“

The brief explains that the ADC’s medical exemption demonstrates that a less restrictive facial hair policy is feasible within the prison’s facilities. “Part of RLUIPA’s purpose is to elevate religious needs to a similar level as other considerations,” according to the brief. “In light of the high degree of protection that RLUIPA gives to inmates’ religious rights, it is illogical for the same institution to provide an almost identical accommodation for medical reasons, while denying that same accommodation for religious purposes. “

The Supreme Court is expected to hear the case of Holt v. Hobbs during its fall term.

From the June 2014 Report from the Capital. Click here to read the next article. 

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