Friday, September 12, 2014

Church v. State: The Debate Over Allowance of Beards in Prisons

Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad (hereinafter Holt), appealed in a hand written statement to the United States Supreme Court seeking certiorari for his right to wear a beard. Holt, currently serving time in an Arkansas Prison, wrote that correctional officers “force inmates to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce with the grooming policy.” Arkansas’ correctional facility allows inmates to wear a neatly trimmed mustache and a short beard only in the case of skin problems. Holt is challenging the correctional facility’s policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act (RLUIPA), which states that the government shall not enforce a “burden on the religious exercise of a person” within an institution unless it fits in the two-prong test. The two-prong test states: the burden is in 1) furtherance of a compelling government interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.

The government will argue that there is a significant government interest and point out that grooming policies prevent inmates from hiding contraband, quickly changing appearances, and that any special privileges to inmates could result in being targeted by other inmates. On the other hand, Holt will focus on the second part of the test and show that the means used are not the least restrictive in furthering that interest. For example, other jurisdictions allow for beards longer than what Holt is asking for, having inmates with beards vigorously run their hands through their beards upon inspection, and authorities could also take pictures of inmates before and after their beards in case the inmates decide to shave. Furthermore, Holt’s hand written brief goes through numerous case precedence where courts have struck down policies banning beards in prisons.

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing Mr. Holt, who has also represented Hobby Lobby, where the court ruled that corporations could refuse to provide contraception coverage to their employees on religious grounds. The Supreme Court should apply to Holt’s case the same two-prong test that it applied in the Hobby Lobby case. However, corporations and inmates have different levels of security interests and the Court will assess religious freedom in a higher context as compared to a publicly traded corporation. “After going out on a limb by providing newfound rights to corporations,” said Marci A. Hamilton, a law professor at Cardozo Law School said, “are they now going to turn around and say that prisoners can’t grow beards?” 

However, if the Court rules in favor of Holt, would that open up doors for others to pressure law enforcement or prison officials to allow for new forms of religious exceptions? For example, similar to this case, would Sikhs in prisons now request to grow beards, wear turbans, and carry a Kirpan (sword). Or would Zoroastrians in prisons be able to ask for a fire temple. What if these laws were to be applied to school settings? For example, would Muslims or Jews be able to pressure schools to allow Muslim/Jewish students to take extra breaks for mandatory prayers? Wherever these laws take us, religious freedom has found its place in this country and it is here to stay.

Hassan Mukhlis
Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner

Photo by Broadhead, via Wikimedia Commons

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