Supreme Court OK with Prisoner's Beard: But declines case about confessional seal

The Supreme Court Jan. 20 ruled unanimously that the Arkansas prison system may not prohibit an inmate from growing a half-inch beard as a part of what he considers his religious obligation as a Muslim.

The court also declined to hear another religious rights case involving the seal of confession.

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In the beard case, Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, sued the Arkansas Department of Corrections for permission to grow a half-inch beard, which is prohibited under the agency's regulations. Holt/Muhammad believes he is called to wear an untrimmed beard, but agreed to wear only a short one.

The case drew attention when it was granted last year because the prisoner acted without an attorney, writing up his own petition by hand. He has been represented by lawyers since the case was granted.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA, which is a 2000 law intended to limit how much a government can restrict religious activities.

Alito said the regulation fails to use the least restrictive means of furthering its interests in controlling inmate behavior. Prison administrators argued that the ban on nearly all beards was to prevent inmates from hiding contraband and to limit the possibility of someone changing his appearance dramatically to reach an off-limits area of the prison or in case of an escape.

Prisoners were allowed to grow shorter beards in the case of someone with a skin condition, but there also was not a similar requirement that inmates' hair or mustaches be kept short, Alito observed. The court also noted that other states allow longer beards without any history of contraband being hidden in them.

Alito took the lower courts to task for interpreting the inmate's religious beliefs, such as by arguing that not all Muslims wear beards so he didn't need to have one, and saying that because the plaintiff had access to other forms of expressing his faith, having a beard wasn't necessary.

Alito said the 2000 law does not allow unquestioning deference to the Department of Corrections' assertions about why they wanted to ban such beards. Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which applies to federal agencies, RLUIPA makes clear the courts are obligated to consider whether exceptions are required, Alito said.

"That test requires the department not merely to explain why it denied the exemption but to prove that denying the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest," he wrote. "Prison officials are experts in running prisons and evaluating the likely effects of altering prison rules, and courts should respect that expertise.

"But that respect does not justify the abdication of the responsibility, conferred by Congress, to apply RLUIPA's rigorous standard," he continued. "And without a degree of deference that is tantamount to unquestioning acceptance, it is hard to swallow the argument that denying petitioner a half-inch beard actually furthers the department's interest in rooting out contraband."

Two justices, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor, had a brief explanation about one aspect of the unanimous ruling. In a one-line note, the two drew a distinction between Holt's case and last term's ruling for the Hobby Lobby corporation, which found that its owners could be exempted from the federal Affordable Care Act's requirement they provide coverage of contraceptives in employee health insurance.

The company's owners had argued that to do so violated their religious beliefs. Alito cited the Hobby Lobby ruling in explaining the government's obligation to seek an approach that is least restrictive of religious rights. Ginsburg and Sotomayor added, "Unlike the exemption this court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc., accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief."

In the other case involving religious rights, the court declined to hear a Louisiana case involving a sacramental confession and whether a priest can be compelled to disclose what transpired if the person who made the confession waives confidentiality.

The effect of the court declining the case is that a lawsuit may proceed to a state court hearing about the nature of confession. The issue arose in a lawsuit filed against the Diocese of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, over how it handled an allegation of sexual abuse of a minor girl by a now-dead prominent lay member of her parish. The family charged that Father Jeffrey Bayhi, pastor of St. John the Baptist Church in Zachary, Louisiana, should have reported circumstances their then-minor daughter discussed with him in confession.

The Louisiana Supreme Court in May ordered lower courts to hold a hearing to consider issues including whether the priest had knowledge about the situation from outside the confessional that might have triggered an obligation to report suspected sexual abuse.

The family had argued that because their daughter had waived confidentiality about the discussions during confession, the priest was obligated to testify about what he heard.

Under canon law, the seal of confession is sacred under the penalty of excommunication.

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