A Muslim inmate in an ultra-maximum security prison in Arkansas is petitioning the Supreme Court to allow him to violate existing regulations for religious purposes and wear a full beard, CNN reports.
Abdul Maalik Muhammad complained in a handwritten petition to the Supreme Court that he is being forced to choose between his religion on the one hand, and prison punishment on the other. Corrections officials shot back that the basis for their refusal to accommodate Muhammad is a security threat.
For officials, growing and then shaving a beard can result in dramatic changes to appearance, which constitutes a clear security risk. Beards can also be used to hide weapons or contraband. The only facial hair currently allowed is a neatly trimmed mustache, with one exception under Administrative Directive 98-4.D. Beards can be worn only when diagnosed with a dermatological condition.
The Obama administration has stepped in to lend its support to Muhammad, and this may be a decisive factor in the justices ruling in favor of accommodation, since the usual trend otherwise is to side with corrections officials.
“When Congress enacted RLUIPA, it made clear that courts should accord deference to prison administrators’ considered judgments about how to run safe and efficient prisons,” Obama administration lawyers told the court in a written brief. “Congress also made clear, however, that such deference is not due when a prison justifies a restriction based on exaggerated fears or mere speculation.” State leaders argued that they should be able to decide their own policies on the local level, and that a one size fits all requirement is a poor idea.
Muhammad is a Yemen-trained Muslim fundamentalist, who has already threatened to wage Jihad against those who contributed to his conviction. He is serving life in prison for slitting the throat of his ex-girlfriend, and in the past, he threatened to harm then-President George W. Bush’s two daughters.
Catholic bishops, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Anti-Defamation League are all piling on in support of Muhammad’s case. A ruling will be handed down in the coming few months.