Christian Groups Support Muslim Inmate in Supreme Court Case on Whether He Can Grow His Beard

supreme court
The exterior of the U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington March 5, 2014. |

The U.S. Supreme Court in Early October will rule on a Muslim prisoner's lawsuit against the Arkansas Department of Correction claiming that when prison guards forced the inmate to shave his beard, they had violated his freedom of religious practice. Four Christian organizations have come to the defense of the inmate's religious liberties.

Inmate Gregory Holt, who also goes by Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is in jail on a life sentence after being convicted of burglary and domestic battery and is looking to maintain a beard of at least a half inch in length to fulfill what he believes to be a religious obligation. However, Arkansas' prison regulations only allow for inmates with dermatologic conditions to grow a beard of a quarter inch in length.

Holt filed a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court after his prior cases in Federal District Court and its ensuing appeal ruled in favor of the Arkansas DOC's claims that regulations are preventive safety measures in case inmates try to hide contraband or weapons in their beards. Holt is being represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which also recently successfully defended the religious freedom of the owners of Hobby Lobby before the Supreme Court, and by personal lawyers.

Coming to the support of the of the inmate by way of a joint brief submitted to the Supreme Court on May 29 are various Christian religious liberty groups that include the Christian Legal Society, World Vision, Prison Fellowship Ministry, and National Association of Evangelicals.

The groups claim that the DOC's refusal to let Holt grow his beard is a direct violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). The law was, in part, designed to prevent prisons from placing burdens on the ability of prisoners to practice their religion.

"This Court should correct the legal error below, and give full effect to RLUIPA's express mandate that the state shall not place any 'substantial burden' on prisoners' free exercise rights unless the state can satisfy the rigorous and well-defined 'strict scrutiny' standard," the brief stated.

Although states voluntarily agree to abide by RLUIPA standards in order to receive additional federal funding, the brief states that Arkansas had agreed to live by the RLUIPA and has received additional federal funds as a result.

"The State of Arkansas failed to make the required showing, and the Eighth Circuit failed to
apply the 'strict scrutiny' analysis required by RLUIPA," the brief states.

The Christian Legal Society, an organization of Christian lawyers, law professors and law students, wrote in the brief that the Supreme Court's decision in this case could have a greater impact than that of prisoner's religious rights.

"These decisions, if allowed to stand, will have corrosive implications far beyond prison walls," the brief states. "Because RLUIPA expressly incorporates the traditional constitutional strict scrutiny analysis, any effort to 'tone down' strict scrutiny in this context could weaken strict scrutiny across the board."

Prison Fellowship Ministry's position in the brief states that it "has a strong interest in the correct interpretation and application" of RLUIPA and that a correct interpretation of the law is of the benefit to all of society as it encourages religious practices for prisoners.

"Prison Fellowship Ministries believes that encouraging rather than obstructing sincere religious
commitment is highly beneficial to prisoners, the environment within prisons, and society at large," the brief states. "Because, it motivates prisoners to make good choices that benefit themselves and our communities, bringing greater peace and security inside prison in the short term, and outside prison as prisoners are released."

A nonprofit Christian humanitarian organization, World Vision, Inc, holds the position in the brief that this case will have a huge implication on the enforcement of the "legislative purpose" of the RLUIPA law.

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