- The Washington Times - Friday, May 11, 2012

A federal appeals panel has reversed a lower court’s ruling that a Sunni Muslim incarcerated in a Virginia prison could not grow a beard as dictated by his religion because it runs counter to the state Department of Corrections’ grooming policy.

William R. Couch, an inmate at the Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, requested in December 2009 to grow a one-eighth-inch beard to comply with his religious requirements, pointing out that the prison accommodated medically exempt inmates who can grow four-inch beards. Those inmates can get a “No Shave Pass” from a prison’s medical authority based on a condition aggravated by shaving.

Mr. Couch was repeatedly denied, however, and subsequently filed a civil action. The district court, however, ruled in favor of the prison officials.

According to the opinion issued Friday by the Fourth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Couch had testified that the primary texts of Islam “command” that he grow a beard “and that the refusal to maintain a beard is a sin comparable in severity to eating pork.”

John M. Jabe, Deputy Director of Operations for the Department of Corrections, countered that the policy barring long hair and beards is in place for legitimate safety and health reasons.

“In addition to security concerns, positive identification of each inmate is important in the event of escape from confinement,” he wrote in an affidavit. “Prisoners with long hair and beards can rapidly change their appearance so as to compromise the need for rapid identification. Even inside the prison, positive, quick identification of inmates facilitates the orderly operation of each facility.”

A three-judge panel, however, said that because prison officials did not outline how a one-eighth-inch beard would implicate safety concerns, they failed to satisfy their burden under a law protecting people living in or confined to an institution from a “substantial burden” on their religious exercise, unless the government can demonstrate that it furthers a “compelling government interest” and is the least restrictive way to do so.

A spokesman for the Department of Corrections said they do not comment on court proceedings or pending litigation.

The panel vacated the district court’s ruling and remanded the case for further proceedings.

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