Federal appeals panel upholds Texas inmate grooming policy
By David Hudson
The Freedom Forum Online
A Texas prison grooming policy requiring inmates to have short hair
and clean-shaven faces does not violate inmates' free exercise of religion
rights, a federal appeals court panel has ruled.
Louis Ray Green, who goes by his Muslim name Habib A. K. Khidar, sued
in federal court, contending that the policy discriminated against inmates who
chose to wear long beards for religious reasons.
Khidar contended that wearing a beard was a tenet of his Islamic
faith. He argued the policy was discriminatory in part because prison officials
allowed inmates to wear beards as long as 3/4 inch for medical reasons,
while denying him the right to wear a beard only 1/4 inch in length.
After a federal district court dismissed the lawsuit, Khidar appealed
to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. On Oct. 18, a three-judge panel of
the 5th Circuit affirmed the lower court decision in
Green v. Polunsky.
The 5th Circuit, like the lower court, analyzed the grooming policy
under the test articulated by the Supreme Court in its 1987 decision
Turner v. Safley. Under the
Safley standard, a prison regulation
that impinges on inmates' constitutional rights is legal as long as the
regulation is reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest, such as
security or rehabilitation.
"First, the policy is neutral, affecting all inmates, regardless of
their religious beliefs," the panel wrote. "The neutral and universal
application of a policy requiring short hair and clean-shaven faces serves the
state's penological interests in a number of ways."
The appeals court panel noted that regulating beard length helps
prison guards identify inmates better and prevents inmates from changing
appearance. Such regulations also serve security purposes since beards and
hairstyles can be "used by inmates to signal gang affiliations," the panel
The panel also rejected Khidar's argument that the policy was
discriminatory because it allowed beards for medical reasons, but not for
religious reasons. "The number of inmates warranting a medical exception to the
grooming policy is quite small, but the number of inmates likely to seek
qualification for a religious exception would be much greater," the panel
The panel concluded by saying that the beard policy did not prohibit
inmates from expressing their religious faiths. "It merely removes or reduces
one of many avenues by which they may manifest their faith," the panel
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