Behind Bars and Beards: Inmates’ Religious Rights

Religious freedom is a fundamental right in America, and at the Muslim Legal Fund of America (MLFA), we’re committed to ensuring that it’s protected and respected, even behind bars. Unfortunately, the reality is that grooming-related issues are among the most common religious accommodation complaints we receive, second only to food-related issues. This problem has caught the attention of the court system as well.

The landmark Supreme Court case Holt v. Hobbs placed a spotlight on the importance of facial hair in religious practice. The case established that an all-out ban on facial hair is not the least restrictive means of accomplishing a compelling government interest. Therefore, the Arkansas prison system was required to allow Muslims to grow a quarter-inch beard if they so choose.

While prisoners may be deprived of certain rights, they are guaranteed their First Amendment right to practice their chosen religion within certain parameters. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) are two primary laws that ensure inmates’ religious rights are protected.

As an organization that’s passionate about fighting for justice and equality, MLFA’s Legal Division was proud to support an inmate in Georgia who was being denied the right to grow a beard longer than one inch, despite others being allowed to grow their hair longer. The prohibition created a clear violation of his religious rights, and we were there to support the inmate’s fight for justice.

In support of the work of the Appellate Legal Clinic at the University of Virginia Law School, we filed an amicus brief to the United States Supreme Court, showcasing the importance of protecting the religious rights of inmates. Although the case is still ongoing at the lower court levels, we’re proud that we could aid in addressing this critical issue.

At MLFA, we believe that religious beliefs and practices must be respected, even behind bars. We are always looking for opportunities to collaborate with other non-profit organizations that share our passion for social justice. Whether it’s through legal services or support for social justice causes, MLFA is here to support your efforts in every way we can. Let’s work together to ensure that everyone’s fundamental rights, regardless of their circumstances, are protected and respected.