Texas Court Allows Muslim Prisoner to Keep Beard and Skullcap

Religious-liberty advocates are praising a federal appellate court’s upholding of a Texas prison inmate’s right to sport a beard and skullcap that, he says, are mandated by his religious beliefs.

The ruling is one of the first reflections of the effects of a 2015 Supreme Court decision that allowed another Muslim inmate to keep his beard and was welcomed by advocates of religious liberty as an important step in defining the scope of legislation protecting the religious beliefs and practices of prisoners.

“It is reassuring to see that the federal courts are following the letter and intent of that law, which protects religious rights in the nation’s prisons,” Rabbi Abba Cohen Agudath Israel’s vice president for Federal Affairs and Washington Bureau director told Hamodia. “It is also evident that the court in this case carefully considered the security concerns raised by the prison and weighed them against the religious protection afforded prisoners under the law.”

Rabbi Cohen added that the court’s decision accurately reflected Congress’ intention in its passage of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, focused on preventing government from placing “substantial burdens on the free exercise of religion,” particularly as it pertains to zoning laws and prisoners, pending their effect on security concerns.

The first time the Supreme Court considered the law’s merits was in Holt v. Hobbes, a case that would have direct bearing on Mr. Ali’s suit. In Holt, the Supreme Court upheld the right of an Arkansas inmate to maintain his beard despite a prison rule banning it. The justices determined that the security challenges that the prison system claimed were insufficient to justify denial of Holt’s right under RLUIPA.

Now, in a 32-page opinion filed Monday, a three-judge 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel in New Orleans unanimously upheld a lower-court ruling that David Rasheed Ali should be allowed to grow a 4-inch beard and wear a knit skullcap, called a kufi. The opinion, written by Appeals Judge Edward Prado, said that the Texas ban on inmates having 4-inch beards and religious headwear outside a cell or religious service violates the precedent set in Holt.

Ali is a Muslim inmate at the state’s Michael Unit in East Texas near Palestine, where he is serving four concurrent 20-year prison sentences for arson, criminal mischief and aggravated robbery.

Texas officials had argued that its ban was needed for security purposes, that beards and caps could facilitate the smuggling of contraband and distort the identities of inmates and potential escapees.

In the 5th Circuit Court opinion, Judge Prado wrote that experts called by Texas to support its security claims were not credible and that beards and caps would still be subject to search, thus failing “least restrictive means” test set by legislators.

Attorney Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund, which represented Mr. Holt in his suit, called the Texas ruling a “logical result” and a “faithful application” of the Supreme Court ruling on the scope of RLUIPA.

“The fifth circuit has been quite tough on prisoners in the past, but they hewed very closely to the law in this case, it shows that the court’s ruling [in Holt] is being taken seriously,” he told Hamodia.

Mr. Goodrich added that the decision could have broader applications to other cases concerning the religious rights of inmates such as ongoing litigation being pursued by the Federal government to obligate Florida’s correction system to provide a permanent kosher meal plan. He said that while the ruling for Mr. Ali is “not binding” on courts considering the Florida case, that petitioners and their supporters were sure to use it as an argument of the scope that the Holt ruling obligates.

With reporting by Associated Press