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Wed 21 Jan 2015 01:44 PM

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US court rules ban on beards violates religious rights

Muslim prisoners in Arkansas had been banned from growing beards longer than a quarter-inch

US court rules ban on beards violates religious rights
Image for illustrative purpose only. (Getty Images)

The US Supreme Court has unanimously ruled that banning prisoners from growing beards violates their religious rights.

The three judges overturned a regulation in Arkansas jails after a Muslim prisoner wrote a hand-written appeal, local media reported.

Arkansas prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” moustaches, as well as quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems, but ban beards in other cases, the New York Times said.

Gregory H. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, had been prohibited from growing a half-inch beard, as is common in Islam.

Prison officials said the ban was important to prevent contraband from being smuggled into the prison.

Even short beards could conceal “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts”, a prison official told the court, according to NYT. Another said that SIM cards for mobile phones also could be hidden in beards.

The leading judge, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., said the idea that security “would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously”.

“An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a half-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out,” he wrote in the court judgement.

Justice Alito also said the prison did not require inmates to have a shaved head, despite hair being easier to conceal contraband than a beard.

The prison officials also argued the ban on beards prevented identification issues, if an inmate was to suddenly shave off the beard.

Justice Alito said such identification issues also could arise if a prisoner shaved off his moustache or hair and the argument was not sufficient to ban longer beards.

A judge from a lower court had earlier ruled that it was sufficient to provide Holt with a prayer rug, the ability to correspond with a religious adviser, appropriate meals and other religious-related requirements.

However, Justice Alito said the judge had been mistaken and Holt had “easily satisfied” the requirement to prove the ban on beards burdened his religious practices.

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