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Should inmates be allowed facial hair for their faith?

Criminals give up many but not all of their rights in prison. The Supreme Court is reviewing a case of an incarcerated convict in Arkansas who is challenging regulations prohibiting facial hair on the grounds of religious observance. Special correspondent Tim O’Brien offers some background, and Marcia Coyle of The National Law Journal joins Judy Woodruff to talk more about the case.

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    The new Supreme Court term kicked off today with a case about the religious freedoms of prison inmates. Should Muslim inmates be allowed to grow beards for religious reasons, or does that pose a significant security risk to prison guards?

    That was the question posed to the Supreme Court today.

    We start with a look at the case at the center of today's arguments.

    It comes from Tim O'Brien who filed this report for the PBS program "Religion & Ethics Newsweekly."

  • And a warning:

    It contains some graphic images and details.

    TIM O'BRIEN, Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly: It was a burglary and stabbing at this trailer in the wee hours of a May morning five years ago that led to Tuesday's Supreme Court case, the perpetrator, 33-year-old Gregory Holt, the victim, his ex-girlfriend. He slashed her throat and stabbed her in the chest, telling her, "If I can't have you, no one will."

    She survived, but Holt was sentenced to life in prison after jurors learned of his long criminal history, including written threats to kidnap President Bush's daughters and blow up federal buildings. He's being held at this maximum security prison at Grady, Arkansas, about 70 miles southeast of Little Rock.

    Years before the offense, Holt converted to Islam. He now goes by the name of Abdul Maalik Muhammad. He's challenging prison regulations that prohibit facial hair, saying a half-inch beard is a requirement of his Muslim faith.

    Criminals do give up many of their rights when they enter prison, but not all of them. In fact, in 2000, President Clinton signed legislation that prohibits any restrictions on the religious liberty of prison inmates, unless the restriction can be shown to be in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest and that it is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.

    After two lower courts ruled against him, Holt — or Abdul Muhammad — mailed a 15-page handwritten petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, challenging the prison grooming policy as a violation of that 2000 federal law.

    "This is a matter of grave importance," wrote Holt, 'pitting the rights of Muslim inmates against a system that is hostile to these views."

    When, to the surprise of many, the Court announced last March that it would hear Holt's appeal, the case took on a life of its own.

    The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm devoted to promoting religious freedom, got involved. It lined up attorney Douglas Laycock, an experienced Supreme Court advocate and one of the country's leading authorities on church-state issues, to represent Holt in the High Court.

    DOUGLAS LAYCOCK, Lawyer for Gregory Holt: The important point here is that this is not just about him. It's about all those other prisoners that Congress learned about that were not getting their scriptures, that were not getting their dietary needs, not getting the other things essential to religious practice.


    Attorneys for the state of Arkansas declined our request for an interview, as did corrections officials, nor would they allow us any access to the inmate, Gregory Holt.

    Holt's case has generated considerable support from groups that have long been at war on church-state issues. More than a dozen friend of the court briefs, representing nearly a hundred organizations, have been filed in Holt's behalf — but only one in support of Arkansas, filed on behalf of fifteen state, saying courts should defer to corrections officials on such matters.

    After his arrest and incarceration, Holt continued to write threatening letters from prison. "Death to America," he wrote in one letter, describing himself as an American Taliban in another.


    If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven.


    But Obama's Justice Department is also backing this self-proclaimed jihadist in this case, characterizing the prison's security concerns as exaggerated or based on mere speculation.

    This is the first Supreme Court test of the federal law designed to protect the religious freedom of prison inmates, and it raises an important question: If the law does not protect the right of a prison inmate to grow a beard, against claims of prison security — claims dismissed by so many as so weak — what does it protect?


    So how did today's arguments play out at the Supreme Court?

    Marcia Coyle of "The National Law Journal" was there, and she joins us now.

    So, Marcia, this is quite a case, quite an interesting set of arguments, Q&A, questions and answers, before the justices. And this is an inmate who has some legal heavyweights on his side.

  • MARCIA COYLE, The National Law Journal:

    He does. He has one of the foremost religion clause scholars in the country representing him in the arguments today.

    This law, it's important to note, it really erects a very high hurdle for the government, or any government body, here a prison system, before it can burden somebody's religious expression. It says the government body has to have a compelling interest, has to choose the least restrictive means to further that interest.

    But it also says, Congress said in the law, you have to give due deference to the experience and expertise of prison officials. It didn't say how much deference. And those two commands are in tension, and that tension played out during the argument.


    And that's what Arkansas was arguing here. So, how — what was the argument they made?


    Well, Mr. Holt's lawyer argued…




    … that Arkansas is looking for absolute deference to their judgment that the no-beard policy protects security within the prison system.

    And he faced a little pushback from some of the justices. The chief justice said, well, a half-inch beard may be an easy case. But the next case that comes along is going to be a one-inch beard, and then it is going to be a full beard. And we have to make a decision based on a generally applicable standard here. Where is the limit on deference?

    And Mr. Holt's lawyer said, well, Arkansas has — as any government body has to provide evidence, concrete examples that there is a material effect on security. That wasn't done here.

    Well, Arkansas counters here. The state's attorney says, look, if — the no-beard policy protects against prisoners altering their appearance if they escape or even altering it within the prison so that they can get into areas they shouldn't be in, and also it protects against the hiding of contraband even in a half-inch beard.


    And it sounds as if the justices are skeptical of some of the arguments the Arkansas…


    They were. In fact, Justice Alito kind of poked fun a little bit at the Arkansas lawyer, saying, well, why not just have them comb the half-inch beard? And something as small a SIM card might fall out or even a revolver.


    A tiny revolver.


    A tiny revolver.


    So this is a case where you have got some sense of the justices being skeptical…


    You did. It seems as though the prisoner may have the better argument here.

    But it's an important case, Judy, because this is really the first time the court has looked at how to apply this law. It's a sister law to what we saw last term in the Hobby Lobby case and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which we learned protects government from burdening the religious expression of corporations and their religious owners. So it's a very important law.


    And you also get to hear all the most interesting cases.


    I do. The facts are always interesting.


    The facts are always — Marcia Coyle, we thank you.


    My pleasure, Judy.

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