By Ken Camp, The Baptist Standard and BJC Staff Reports
Texas prisons must allow Muslim inmates to wear the beards and knit skullcaps their religion demands, a federal court ruled.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of David Rasheed Ali, who sued the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) in 2009, saying his faith required him to wear a “fist-length” beard and a white knit kufi.
Ali, an inmate at the Michael Unit near Palestine, Texas, asserted the TDCJ policies violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The law bars the government from imposing a “substantial burden” on prisoners’ religious practices unless officials can show a compelling interest, and it requires the government to use the “least restrictive” means possible.
A district court ruled in Ali’s favor, and the appeals court affirmed that decision.
The appeals court opinion demonstrates the “strong protections for the religious liberty interests of prisoners” RLUIPA provides, said Holly Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty.
“While safety and security are obviously important governmental interests, the Supreme Court has made clear that courts should not give undue deference to prison officials. This case follows that guidance,” she said.
At the time Ali filed his suit, the prison system permitted inmates to wear religious skullcaps only inside their cells or during religious worship services, and the TDCJ grooming policy required all male inmates to be clean-shaven, aside from certain medical exemptions.
The agency later amended its policy to allow inmates to grow half-inch beards for religious reasons, but the TDCJ insisted longer beards and skullcaps presented a security risk because prisoners could hide weapons and other contraband in them.
The appeals court ruled the prison system has a compelling interest in maintaining security and eliminating contraband in prison. However, the court ruled, the TDCJ did not demonstrate banning longer beards and restricting when and where inmates could wear kufis was the “least restrictive” means to accomplish its legitimate security concerns.
Under prison system procedures, correctional officers require inmates with long hair to prove it is free of contraband, and the court asserted the prison likewise could require a similar process for long beards.
The appeals court ruling affirmed a 2014 decision by U.S. Magistrate Zack Hawthorn, which had been appealed by the TDCJ.