Monday, March 3, 2014

"Free exercise of religion" question: Should a beard be permitted for a Muslim prisoner?

On the same day that Aylin raised this question in class, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case about it.

Without betraying my own views on this case, I will admit it's quite impressive that Mr. Holt conducted his own research and filed a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court from jail.

From the New York Times:
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Monday agreed to decide whether prison officials in Arkansas may prohibit inmates from growing beards in accordance with their religious beliefs.
The policy was challenged by Gregory H. Holt, who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery. Mr. Holt said his Muslim faith required him to grow a beard.
The state’s policy allows trimmed mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for those with dermatological problems. Prison officials said the ban on other facial hair was needed to promote “health and hygiene,” to minimize “opportunities for disguise” and to help prevent the concealment of contraband.
Mr. Holt sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that requires prison officials to show that policies that burden religious practices advance a compelling penological interest and use the least restrictive means to do so. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled in June that the justifications offered by the officials satisfied that standard.
Mr. Holt filed a handwritten petition in September asking the justices to hear his case, Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, pointing out that other courts had struck down policies banning beards in prisons. In an interim order in November, the Supreme Court ordered that Mr. Holt be allowed to grow a half-inch beard.
In their response to Mr. Holt’s Supreme Court petition, prison officials told the justices that “homemade darts and other weapons” and “cellphone SIM cards” could be concealed in even half-inch beards. They added that they did not welcome the task of monitoring the lengths of inmates’ beards.
In a reply brief, Mr. Holt, now represented by Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia, said 39 state corrections systems and the federal system allow prisoners to wear beards. He added that the justifications for the policy were illogical as there were much easier places to hide contraband — shoes, say — than in a short beard.

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