Press Release

Diverse Religious, Civil Rights Groups Join Forces to Protect Prisoner Religious Liberty at the Supreme Court Catholic Bishops, ACLU find common ground on religious freedom

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Ryan Colby 202-349-7219

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Washington D.C.More than 50 groups, including religious denominations, the American Civil Liberties Union, other civil rights groups, as well as prison security experts, are submitting friend-of-the-court briefs to the United States Supreme Court in support of Abdul Muhammad, an Arkansas inmate who has been denied the ability to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith.

Becket and Professor Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia School of Law represent Mr. Muhammad in Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, which will be argued to the Court in the fall. Submission of friend-of-the-court briefs is expected to take place today and conclude at midnight tonight.At issue is whether the Arkansas prison system’s refusal to allow Mr. Muhammad’s peaceful wearing of a half-inch beard violates a federal civil rights law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

“The across-the-board support for Mr. Muhammad shows that religious liberty remains one of the bedrock ideals of America,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for Becket. “Whether we treat prisoners with basic human dignity—including the freedom to seek God—speaks volumes about who we are as a Nation.”

In 2000, President Clinton signed RLUIPA with unanimous Congressional support to stop arbitrary restrictions on prisoners’ religious practices, promote prison security, and lower recidivism rates. That broad-based support is reflected in the filings today, which include Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, Protestant, Sikh, and Hindu religious organizations, as well as civil rights organizations, former prisoners, former prison wardens, and prison security experts. Among those filing are the Nation’s Catholic bishops, the ACLU, Orthodox Jewish organizations such as Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel, the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Missions Board, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, and the Women’s Prison Association.

“Over 40 state and federal prison systems would allow Mr. Muhammad’s beard,” stated Rassbach. “And if they can do it Arkansas can, too. That’s especially the case since Arkansas already allows beards for medical reasons.”

On June 28, 2011, Mr. Muhammad, representing himself, filed a lawsuit seeking the ability to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith. Mr. Muhammad lost in federal trial court and in the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis. He then  submitted a handwritten petition  for an injunction to the Supreme Court. Justice Alito read the petition and sent it to the entire Court for decision, and the Court granted the petition. On March 3, 2014, the Supreme Court said that it would hear his appeal in full. Oral argument is expected in October or November 2014. Becket filed Mr. Muhammad’s opening brief on May 22.

Becket is a non-profit, public-interest law firm dedicated to protecting the free expression of all religious traditions—from Anglicans to Zoroastrians. For20years its attorneys have been recognized as experts in the field of church-state law. Becket recently won a 9-0 victory in Hosanna-Tabor v. EEOC, which The Wall Street Journal called one of “the most important religious liberty cases in a half century.”    For more information, or to arrange an interview with one of the attorneys, please contact Melinda Skea at  or call 202.349.7210.