Court revives inmate’s claim against no-beard policy

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

A three-judge federal appeals court reinstated a Virginia prisoner’s religious-liberty lawsuit over a no-beards policy. The panel reasoned that prison officials failed to explain how the grooming policy furthered health or security.

William R. Couch is a Sunni Muslim and an inmate housed at the Augusta Correctional Center in Craigsville, Va. Incarcerated since 1990 and serving multiple life sentences, Couch continuously maintained a beard for religious purposes until 1999.

That year, the Virginia Department of Corrections instituted a no-beards rule to aid in quick inmate identification and promote safety, security and sanitation. Inmates suffering a skin condition caused by shaving were given medical exemptions.

In December 2009, Couch requested permission to grow a 1/8-inch beard to comply with religious obligations. Apparently Couch complied with the policy from 1999 until 2009.

After his request was denied, Couch filed an appeal with the prison administration. When that failed, he filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) and the free-exercise clause of the First Amendment.

RLUIPA is a federal law passed in 2000 that requires prison officials to have a compelling government interest advanced in the least-restrictive way before they can substantially burden an inmate’s religious-liberty rights.  For inmates, RLUIPA often serves as a better litigation vehicle than the free-exercise clause, because RLUIPA imposes a higher burden of proof on prison officials than the U.S. Supreme Court requires under the free-exercise clause in cases that don’t target a specific religious faith.

A federal district court ruled in favor of prison officials, granting summary judgment. Couch then appealed to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. He appealed only the denial of the RLUIPA claim. In its May 11 opinion in Couch v. Jabe, the three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit reversed the lower court and reinstated Couch’s claim.

The appeals panel, in an opinion written by Chief Judge William Traxler, found that prison officials were able to identify a compelling interest for the grooming policy. They relied on an affidavit from John M. Jabe, deputy director of operations for the Virginia Department of Corrections. Jabe wrote that inmates could hide contraband in beards, promote identification with gangs, create a health or safety problem or significantly impair prison officials’ ability to identify inmates quickly.

However, the panel then determined that the grooming policy was not advanced in the least-restrictive way possible. Couch contended that he should have a religious exemption from the policy to grow a 1/8-inch beard. According to him, this short beard would not hinder prison officials from identifying him and would not cause any security or safety problems.

The appeals court sided with Couch, noting that prison officials had “failed to indicate any consideration of whether Couch’s proposed alternative might be equally as successful as the Policy in furthering the identified compelling interests, and they failed to provide any acknowledgment that a religious exemption for a one-eighth-inch beard would implicate the identified compelling interests.”

Traxler noted that prison officials are owed deference by the courts concerning the handling of prisons and inmates. But he concluded: “Prison Officials simply failed to provide any explanation to which this court could defer.”

Couch’s case now goes back to the district court for reconsideration.

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