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

Supreme Court upholds religious rights of prisoners

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. Photo courtesy of Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, via Arkansas Corrections


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WASHINGTON (RNS) A Supreme Court that has extended the reach of religion into public life in recent years ruled Tuesday (Jan. 20) that spirituality can overcome even prison security concerns.

The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by Arkansas prison officials. Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man's religious right.

The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state's no-beard policy. The ruling extended the high court's reverence for religious beliefs and observances. In its last term, the justices allowed family-owned businesses with religious objections to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives, and the court also upheld prayers at municipal government meetings.

A law passed by Congress in 2000 was intended to protect prisoners' religious rights, much like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was meant to protect religious freedom in general.

The issue before the court was Arkansas' requirement that prisoners be clean-shaven unless they have a medical reason for keeping a quarter-inch beard. While more than 40 state prison systems allow beards in general, Gregory Holt had agreed to keep his to a half-inch -- virtually negating the chance he could hide weapons or contraband in it.

Both the federal district and appeals courts ruled against Holt, even though a magistrate who heard testimony said it was "almost preposterous" to think he could hide a weapon in his beard. Noting that Holt had been granted several other religious concessions, such as a prayer rug, a special diet and holiday observances, the lower courts deferred to the state's judgment about its security needs.

During oral arguments in October, several justices belittled the state's stated fears: that an escaped prisoner could hide a weapon or contraband in his beard, as well as change his appearance after an escape by shaving. The state said its policy was needed because it houses inmates in barracks and employs them on maintenance jobs outside prison grounds.

Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, had persuaded the court to hear his case with a 15-page, handwritten petition citing his desire to keep a beard as part of his Muslim faith. "This is a matter of grave importance, pitting the rights of Muslim inmates against a system that is hostile to these views,” he wrote.

(Richard Wolf writes for USA Today.)

MG END WOLF

 

Comments

  1. “This is a matter of grave importance, pitting the rights of Muslim inmates against a system that is hostile to these views,” he wrote.

    That isn’t just pure irony, but it is perverted hypocrisy. Islam, and its hundreds and hundreds of million proponents, has/have shown since it’s/their inception

    . . . to be utterly hostile to anyone and anything that isn’t Islamic. And that is HOSTILE as in REAL hostility!

    Fortunately, this guy is in prison. But don’t think this will spread fairness and respect FROM Muslims to others. How many non-Muslim people are treated this respectfully in Muslim prisons worldwide? OR, ever will be?

    Zero is the only answer.

    Though I am supportive of the Supreme Court for this decision, there is nothing even remotely as honorable in Islamic courts, or even in Islam in general.

  2. “How many non-Muslim people are treated this respectfully in Muslim prisons worldwide? OR, ever will be?”

    We talking about all of history?? You MUST be since you say “since it’s/their inception”.

    Thus I’ll give you the Christian Frankish Crusader Oliverus Scholasticus’s account of his time as a prisoner of the Muslims:

    “Who could doubt that such goodness, friendship and charity come from God? Men whose parents, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had died in agony at our hands, whose lands we took, whom we drove naked from their homes, revived us with their own food when we were dying of hunger and showered us with kindness even when we were in their power.”

    Unless you wish to dispute the firsthand account of a Christian PoW.

  3. That is the thing about religious freedom. One doesn’t have to like or remotely respect the ideals of a given religion as a prerequisite to possessing a right to worship it. We are a democracy, we do not have to crap on our ideals to oppose dangerous tyranny.

    Your take on Islam is your own. But its not something anyone has to take seriously when considering whether one has a right to practice their faith.

    Before you start with rants about “Sharia!!!!”, you need to understand that free exercise always had limits concerning dealing with those outside a given faith. Despite the claims of Christian fundamentalists, free exercise of religion has never been license to force others to follow in the tenets of your faith. Your 1st Amendment rights always ended where you harm others or break laws of general application.

    The reason why so many Christian fundies have trouble with Islam is that Muslim dictatorships implement ideas that Christian fundies are prevented from (thanks to secular government). Its “Jihad envy”. Islamicism is a reflection of Christian Fundamentalist ideals. Entanglement of church and state, dictating the beliefs of an entire faith, pretending any sectarian differences are heresy, privilege of the dominant sect over all. Islamicist dictatorship is a real world example of what happens when you oppose notions of secularism.

  4. Liked your Comments, Larry
    I am presently reading The Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America, By Frank Lambert. It is an amazing book and very detailed.

    As for linking all Baptist in with fundamentalist, take a look at this from Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (Blog)

    Supreme Court affirms prisoner’s right to religious grooming practice
    BJC applauds decision protecting religious exercise, confirming importance of RLUIPA

    The BJC joined the American Jewish Committee and three other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief in the case, defending the religious rights of Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a practicing Muslim serving a life sentence in Arkansas.

    Copy of decision available: BJConline.org/HoltvHobbs.

    Gee folks it was only a matter of one quarter of an inch more than the quarter inch allowed inmates with medical reasons not to shave close. The justices found such a requirement for security reasons laughable.

    By the way when I was a prison chaplain, one of my inmate aides had such a problem with his facial hair, he had to go to the prison barber shop to carefully trim his beard or he would get an infection from ingrown hair.

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