Beliefs Culture Ethics

Muslim inmate takes his case for a beard to the Supreme Court

When Gregory Holt's case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Oct. 7), lawyers won't be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs. Photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

WASHINGTON (RNS) It’s not every day that a coalition of legal minds is rooting for a violent inmate convicted of stabbing his girlfriend in the neck.

When Gregory Holt's case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Oct. 7), lawyers won't be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs. Photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

When Gregory Holt’s case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Oct. 7), lawyers won’t be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs. Photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, via Arkansas Corrections

When Gregory Holt’s case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (Oct. 7), lawyers won’t be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs.

The state of Arkansas says he can’t. Holt — a convert to Islam who now calls himself Abdul Maalik Muhammad — says he would keep his beard no longer than half an inch. But prison officials, backed by the state’s attorney general, argue that even such a short beard poses security risks.

“When it comes to making prison policies, the stakes are high; lives can be lost if the wrong decision is made,” according to the state’s legal brief, which describes Holt as a violent self-declared fundamentalist. “The ADC takes religious freedom seriously, but it takes seriously its paramount interests in safety and security, too.”

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Ray Hobbs, the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction. But it’s hard to find too many others who think that the prison’s case for security trumps Holt’s right to exercise his religion.

Among those who filed legal briefs supporting Holt: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Jewish Committee. The attorneys at the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who are preparing Holt’s case also represented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. last year in the evangelical-owned company’s successful suit against the Obamacare contraception mandate.

“Last year we found out that companies have religious freedom rights,” said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United, referring to Hobby Lobby’s win at the Supreme Court. “This year we’re going to find out if individuals do too.”

In some ways, the Hobby Lobby case and Holt’s are similar: They both turn on federal laws that require the government to do more than show that the policy in question — in Holt’s case, a beard ban — makes sense. When imposing a “substantial” burden on an individual’s religious observance, federal law says the government must prove a “compelling” government interest and that it employs the “least restrictive” way of achieving its goals.

Holt v. Hobbs is “not really about Muslims or the practice of having a beard,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund. The case, he said, will help define the extent to which the nation values religious rights.

“The degree of religious liberty we give to people who are not powerful in society says a lot more about us than it does about them,” Rassbach said. “We don’t want to be treating people like animals because they committed a crime.”

Also on the prisoner’s side: the federal government. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s brief on the case notes that Holt’s prison allows inmates to grow the hair on top of their heads longer than a half inch as long as it does not reach the nape of their necks.

On the other side of the case, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel argues that prison officials — and not courts — have wide latitude in determining security risks among the incarcerated.

The state’s legal brief rests in great part on the objections of prison officials concerned that a bearded prisoner could hide weapons, drugs or even cellphone SIM cards in his facial hair.

But they had other concerns. Escaped prisoners can quickly shave to make themselves harder to catch. The prison doesn’t have the resources to regularly check beard lengths or to protect guards from inmates who do not appreciate having their beards scrutinized for contraband. And any policy that seems to privilege one prisoner over another can foment unrest among inmates.

Holt, the brief also states, has put a knife to the neck of a fellow prisoner in a religious dispute. He has repeatedly stated his intention to harm public officials and pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap and harm the daughters of former President George W. Bush. He has declared himself  “at war” with the prison barber and has threatened to hurt him. Still, Holt — who adheres to Salafism, a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia — has been given many opportunities for religious observance.

“He is able to acknowledge his religion in a variety of other ways without wearing a beard, such as the use of a prayer rug during his worship times, reading and studying the Koran, communicating with a religious advisor, maintaining the required diet, and observing religious holidays,” the brief states.

Arkansas officials also noted that some Muslim men do not wear beards.

As with most religions, adherents vary in their practice. And although there is nothing in the Quran that requires Muslim men to grow a beard, three of the four major schools of Sunni Islam consider it mandatory.

“While there are differing interpretations, for some Muslims it is a sincerely held religious belief based on the word and the example of the Prophet Muhammad,” said Saif Inam, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Some people believe it is absolutely required.”

Holt will not be present when the Supreme Court hears his case on Tuesday. The justices are expected to issue their decision next spring.

KRE/MG END MARKOE

 

About the author

Lauren Markoe

Lauren Markoe has been a national reporter for RNS since 2011. Previously she covered government and politics as a daily reporter at the Charlotte Observer and The State (Columbia, S.C.)

15 Comments

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  • The problem with inmates filing suit over anything is, one never knows if they really “mean it” or not. Inmates have a lot of time on their hands, and a lot of grudges to nurse. One of their few outlets is the essentially endless access they have to the court system. Anytime they want to file a suit over something, they can do so … at no cost to them.

    Take for example Steven Hayes’s lawsuit over a kosher diet (http://www.agnostic-library.com/ma/2014/09/12/vicious-murderer-uses-religion-to-protest-being-on-death-row/). He’s even less of an Orthodox Jew than I am — and I’m not one at all. But he’s found a rationale to file a suit against a state, not to mention one or more attorneys mercenary enough to take the case and milk the state for six figures or more. His problem is that he’s pissed off over being locked up for life and he’s looking for ways (other than suicide attempts, which he’s used multiple times) to get attention to himself and gin up a little sympathy for his “cause.”

    What people like Hayes and Holt should do, instead of using religion as a pretext for filing lawsuits, is to grow up — usually for the first time in their lives; accept responsibility for what they did; and endure their sentences … in silence. Using religion in order to exact revenge against the state and legal system that put them in prison, and to get their names in the papers because they have no other way to express themselves, is childish. Lawyers who take their cases should be disbarred. Judges who hear these cases should be thrown off the bench. And any believers who actually think any of these guys’ religious beefs with the prison system are genuine, need to have their heads examined.

  • Committing actions that are considered criminal to a given society result in the loss of the rights had in those given societies, although some rights may be significantly more or less in differing societies. In the U.S.A., punishment for crimes take away many rights, and that should also include any special treatment to insure the freedom of religious worship. If a convicted criminal wants to practice a religious belief, they should be allowed to, but only to the extent that it doesn’t require any special treatment.

  • it is the politically correct consensus that radical islamist are not real muslims, so why would it be OK to let them perform muslims rituals?
    wouldn’t that offend muslims?

  • Yes, E, what you and PsiCop share is valid. This is not to say that I have no compassion for the imprisoned, for there is often a horrendous back story on these offenders, which cannot be completely dismissed, but it is the case that losing rights can help one to realize bad behavior (although too often this is missed, and for many reasons). At some point it is necessary to understand the imbalances and remember who the victims are …

    Peace and Love

  • Why is it that the worst of society, when incarcerated, always find allah. Then the PC police scramble to make sure they are not offended or have their feelings hurt. Like most such cases, Mr. Holt converts to islam, then continues his ways. I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the koran!

  • Not true, many also find Christ and expect to be paroled. They think making self-serving statements about God’s forgiveness is more important than making amends to people one harmed.

  • I agree with you, I am sure there are a lot of rules that are necessary to enforce in order to maintain order. For example, I imagine that the anarchists who never take a bath could stink up a prison cell and make themselves a nuisance to everyone, yet they could claim it was their right, and it is their religion or creed or world view, but most people would agree there must be rules to prevent such things. I think anyone who is in jail loses all but the essential rights to food, shelter, sanitary living and some daily exercise. We give all kinds of other things like visits, use of telephone at certain times, matrimonial visits etc.
    Enough is enough. Peace.

  • The problem isn’t whether or not they “use” religion, but the fact that Christianity is allowed in most prisons–even sometimes State sponsored. If one religion is allowed, then all religions must be allowed, according to the Constitution, which is often ignored by religious conservatives.

  • Re: “If one religion is allowed, then all religions must be allowed, according to the Constitution, which is often ignored by religious conservatives.”

    I honestly don’t care what the religion is. Or even if religion is involved at all. When inmates launch lawsuits based on pretexts, because they have nothing better to do with themselves and view it as a way to get back at the system that put them where they are, it’s always bad for everyone.

    Except maybe the lawyers … paid for by government … who represent the inmates. They make a boatload of cash. The rest of us pay that bill and the courts have to waste time indulging them.

  • Im so against this!! these are people who broke the law ,prison shouldn’t. Be. A walk in the park ! Thats why they all go back its harder to be a good hard working person on the outside then to be a prisoner . This guy killed a women

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