(by Lawrence Hurley, Reuters) – An Arkansas policy prohibiting inmates from having beards violated the religious rights of a prisoner who had wanted to grow one in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.
The justices, on a 9-0 vote in a closely watched case involving prisoner Gregory Holt, known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, rejected the state’s reasoning that the policy was needed for security reasons to prevent inmates from concealing contraband.
Holt, who wanted to grow a half-inch beard, is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to separate charges of threatening the daughters of then-President George W. Bush.
Holt, without any legal representation at the time, persuaded the court to hear his case by filing a handwritten petition.
Justice Samuel Alito, writing on behalf of the court, said the state already searches clothing and hair and had not given a valid reason why it could not also search beards.
Alito wrote that the prison’s “interest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard.”
Holt said the state’s prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a “neatly trimmed mustache” violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
His lawyers noted that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.
Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights legal group that helped represent Holt, called the ruling “a huge win for religious freedom.”
“What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best,” Rassbach added.
Eighteen states had backed Arkansas, saying the court should defer to the judgment of prison officials.Judd Deere, spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said, “We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the two lower federal courts that reviewed the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a pointed concurring opinion that recalled the court’s bitterly divided 2014 decision allowing for-profit companies to deny employees contraceptive insurance coverage based on company owners’ religious beliefs.
“Unlike the exemption this court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores*,” Ginsburg said, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “accommodating (Holt’s) religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share (his) belief.”
The case is Holt v. Hobbs, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-6827. [The Obama administration, religious groups and atheists alike supported Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. ]
[*In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. Hobby Lobby’s owners objected to a provision requiring businesses to include coverage of certain “contraceptives.” The Green family had no moral objection to the use of 16 of 20 contraceptives required in the mandate, and Hobby Lobby would continue its longstanding practice of covering these preventive contraceptives for its employees. They only objected to being forced to provide 4 potentially life-threatening drugs and devices. These drugs include the morning-after pill and the week-after pill (which are abortifacients: substances that induce abortion.) They argued that this portion of the Obamacare law violated their religious rights. (In their ruling, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious nonprofits, may claim these rights.)]
(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic in Washington and Steve Barnes in Little Rock). Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Thomson Reuters. Visit the website at Reuters .com.
1. The first paragraph of a news article should answer the questions who, what, where and when. List the who, what, where and when of this news item. (NOTE: The remainder of a news article provides details on the why and/or how.)
2. How did the Justices vote in this case?
3. How did the state of Arkansas defend its policy?
4. How did Justice Samuel Alito explain the court’s decision?
5. a) On what grounds did Holt argue that he had a right to keep his beard?
b) What point did his lawyers make about prison inmates being permitted to have similar beards?
6. Why did 18 states back Arkansas’ policy?
7. How did Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lawyer Eric Rassbach interpret the court’s ruling in Holt-Muhammad’s favor?
EXPLANATION OF PROCEDURE FOR ORAL ARGUMENTS IN THE SUPREME COURT:
On the Supreme Court from BensGuide.gpo.gov:
More about the case:
Gregory Holt of Little Rock was sentenced to life in prison for domestic violence (cutting his girlfriend’s throat) and burglary – after jurors saw letters he’d written describing himself as an “American Taliban” and calling for death to America. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said in 2012 that prosecutors said Holt cut his girlfriend’s throat and stabbed her in the chest at her mobile home. At sentencing, deputy prosecutor Will Jones showed jurors eight letters Holt had written from jail. In the letters, Holt occasionally praised Osama bin Laden, dreamed of dying a martyr in a jihad, and wrote poetry imagining Little Rock police detective Damon Whitener being decapitated by the Taliban. Holt also wrote how he wasn’t bound by American laws, but only recognized the Shariah law of Islam. During Holt’s trial he wrote manifestos advising that “I intend to wage jihad against any court personnel, detectives, adverse witnesses, and will do whatever it takes to get these individuals, as Allah is my witness.” The proceedings before Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey also revealed that Holt had been feuding with Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the Tennessee man charged with capital murder over the slaying of a soldier at a Little Rock recruiting center. The dispute purportedly was over which man is the better Muslim.
In Holt v. Hobbs, Holt sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or Rluipa. Some state prisons used to deny incarcerated believers prayer mats, kosher meals and the like. So in 2000 Congress voted unanimously to extend to inmates the same protections of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA: If government infringes on religion, such intrusions must serve a compelling interest and use the “least restrictive” means.