Muslim inmates in the Jumu'ah prayer service in the chapel of the Men's Central Jail in Los Angeles County during the month of Ramadan. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)
Muslim inmates in the Jumu’ah prayer service in the chapel of the Men’s Central Jail in Los Angeles County during the month of Ramadan. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times)

(WASHINGTON, D.C., 1/20/15) – The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, today applauded a unanimous ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that a Muslim inmate in Arkansas be permitted to grow a beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

That decision overturned a state prison policy banning beards. The justices rejected the claim that the policy was needed for security reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito noted that prison officials already search clothing and hair and had not offered a reason they could not search beards as well. Alito wrote: “[I]nterest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard.” “Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a half-inch beard, and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes,” Alito wrote. “Nevertheless, the department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot or naked.”

SEE: Supreme Court Rules for Muslim Inmate Over Prison Beard Policy (Reuters)
Supreme Court Upholds Religious Rights of Prisoners (USA Today)

“We applaud the ruling in this important case, which firmly underscores that courts should not blindly defer when the government invokes ‘security’ as a reason to curtail rights,” said CAIR Civil Rights Litigation Director Jenifer Wicks. “The state has the burden of proving that a compelling government interest justifies its burden on the exercise of religion beliefs and practices. In this case, the court rightfully rejected arguments the growing of a beard in any way harmed prison safety and security.”

Wicks noted that CAIR recently filed an amicus (“friend of the court”) brief on inmate religious rights with the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which is considering whether the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s (TDCJ) policy requiring direct supervision by a chaplain or outside volunteer of inmates who gather in groups for religious services is unconstitutional.

Late last year, CAIR also filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court, which is considering whether clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch’s refusal to hire a Muslim woman wearing a religious headscarf (hijab) was discriminatory.

CAIR is America’s largest Muslim civil liberties and advocacy organization. Its mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.

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