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Why you should care about a Muslim inmate's beard
Abdul Muhammad (formerly named Gregory Holt) will have his case heard by the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
October 6th, 2014
05:25 PM ET

Why you should care about a Muslim inmate's beard

Opinion by Emily Hardman, special to CNN

(CNN) - I’m not a Muslim. I’ve never been imprisoned. And I don’t want to grow a beard. But I’m defending the rights of someone who is and does.

On Tuesday, the Supreme Court will hear Holt v. Hobbs, a landmark case cutting to the heart of the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom.

At issue is whether refusing to allow a prisoner to peacefully practice his religion violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, known as RLUIPA .

In this case, Abdul Muhammad (formerly named Gregory Holt) is an Arkansas inmate who wants to observe the Muslim command to grow a beard, in his case a half-inch in length.

Arkansas already allows inmates to grow beards for medical reasons and Muhammad’s beard would be permissible in 43 state and federal prison systems across the country.

The remaining outliers, including Arkansas, attempt to justify their bans in the name of security. However, Arkansas has not identified a single confirmed security problems resulting from beards.

Prisoners lose many of their physical rights when they enter prison—and rightly so—but they cannot be forced to surrender peaceful expressions of their humanity to the arbitrary whim of prison officials.

Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents prison officials from denying inmates the right to seek God in religious practice, unless the prison officials have a compelling reason to do so.

The case has drawn strange bedfellows in support of Muhammad’s rights.

The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State are on the same side as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations.

In other words, groups that have fought bitterly over recent religious freedom cases have united in support of Muhammad.

And rightly so: Prisoners practicing their faith is good for the individual and good for society.

Studies have shown that those who practice their faith in prison are more likely to be rehabilitated and are 12% less likely to commit a crime once they are released.

It is little wonder that protecting prisoners’ basic human dignity, including the ability to seek out the good and the true through faith, helps these people become better.

Fifteen years ago, Congress recognized this principle and that government bureaucrats routinely trampled on prisoners’ religious liberty.

In support of RLUIPA, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah and the late Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts reached across party lines to issue a joint diagnosis:

“Whether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”

The senators provided several specific examples:

Many prisons denied Catholics access to the sacraments of communion and confession and shut down evangelical Bible studies.

Many prisons banned religious diets such as kosher and halal food.

Prisons often confiscated and destroyed sacred texts, such as the Bible, the Koran, the Bhagavad Gita and various prayer books.

Prisons often banned religious objects, such as rosaries, prayer shawls and yarmulkes.

One prison prohibited prisoners from observing various religious holidays, restricting prisoners’ ability to fast, pray and worship God on special occasions.

In one extreme instance, prison officials violated the seal of the confessional by bugging inmates’ confessions to their priests.

In response to these and many other forms of religious suppression, a large bipartisan majority in Congress, supported by President Clinton, enacted RLUIPA as a landmark civil rights statute.

RLUIPA embodies a simple principle: Prison officials should not impose egregious and unnecessary restrictions on religious liberty.

In Holt v. Hobbs, Muhammad’s half-inch beard will represent a host of peaceful religious practices that RLUIPA was meant to protect. We all stand to lose when governments like Arkansas’ arbitrarily ban the peaceful practice of religion.

The Supreme Court should protect Muhammad’s rights, and in so doing secure religious liberty for us all.

Emily Hardman is a lawyer and the communications director at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which is co-counsel in Holt v. Hobbs. The views expressed in this column belong to Hardman. 

- CNN Belief Blog

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.