Religious Accommodations for Beards in Prison

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KULPMONT, Penn — An on-again, off-again inmate in Pennsylvania’s correctional system has filed a federal lawsuit alleging his religious beliefs were violated when he was required to shave his beard. Randy Elliot, Jr., said in court papers that the incident occurred June 13 of this year, a month and a half before he was released. He was given a choice between shaving his beard, which, according to the filed papers, is “against the Viking way” or being placed on restrictive housing status. Elliot, who is seeking an injunction against such actions and monetary damages, has since been returned to prison due to parole violations.

Beards as a religious issue are nothing new in the United States, in or out of the prison system. In July, Walt Disney World relaxed its “Disney look” to accommodate a Sikh employee who had been restricted to working out of the public eye due to his unshaven beard. It didn’t meet the company’s grooming standards. Through his attorneys, Gurdit Singh, a park delivery driver, claimed that he was restricted to a single route, denied promotions, and singled out by employees because of his appearance. While Disney started allowing beards in 2012, the company’s policies required them to be neatly trimmed; Sikh beliefs do not allow adherents to cut their hair.

[Courtesy U.S. Army]

Army Captain Tejdeep Singh Rattan, one of the first granted permission to grow a beard and wear a turban on active duty. [Courtesy U.S. Army]

The United States military arguably has more restrictive rules on appearance than the Disney Corporation. However members are allowed to apply for waivers from those rules for religious reasons, accommodating those faiths that call for facial hair, such as Sikhism, and some sects of Hinduism, Islam and Judaism.  The process of obtaining such a waiver has been called into question, because the soldier still must comply with all the grooming standards while the application is in process.

In prisons, there are different reasons for grooming restrictions. Officials must balance the need for safety and security against the accommodation of religious beliefs, and often they err on the side of safety and security. In January, the Supreme Court found that by denying prisoner Abdul Maalik Muhammad the right to grow a half-inch beard, the state of Arkansas was infringing on his rights of religious expression as a Muslim. Justices were skeptical of arguments that contraband, including SIM cards for cellular phones, razor blades, and other items, could be hidden in beard of that length. They pointed out that longer hair was permitted on prisoners’ heads, and that it would not be particularly difficult to search short beards as well, or at least require the bearded prisoner to run a comb through it in the presence of guards.

According to Diane Duggan, case manager at Lady Liberty League (LLL), questions such as these revolve around whether the prisoner is expressing sincerely-held religious beliefs or not. “I don’t know enough about [Elliot’s] situation,” to comment on it in particular, she said. To the best of her knowledge, he had not contacted LLL for assistance. “What you need to look at is other faiths. If, in that system, members of other faiths are allowed to have beards, and his belief is sincerely held, one would think he would be allowed to have it. Because [prison officials] have to balance security where they have compelling interests, it’s a fine line.”

In the case of Muhammed, the court applied the “Hobby Lobby” test to evaluate the question of religious accommodation. As described in The New York Times,

“The test, set out in federal statutes, first considers whether the challenged government regulation places a substantial burden on religious practices. If it does, the test requires the government to show that it had a compelling reason for the regulation and no better way to achieve it.”

When it came to the request to grow a half-inch beard, the Supreme Court found that the denial did place a substantial burden on Muhammed’s religious practices, and it remained skeptical that there was not another way to achieve the goal of safety. In Arkansas, prisoners with skin conditions may grow beards of up to one-quarter inch in length,. Therefore, the justices questioned whether doubling that length would truly tip the scales away from security within the facility.

There is not a good legal test for evaluating “sincerely-held religious beliefs,” and Duggan suspects that this is by design. “Someone who is new to a religion may not know all of its tenets as they learn, but wish to comply with the requirements,” she said. Sincerity cannot be easily measured by length of time that one has been an avowed member of a particular religion for that reason. In addition, inmates frequently renew or begin religious practices while incarcerated.

Nevertheless, there is some speculation about whether Elliot’s “Viking way” actually has its roots in Heathenry. Kari Tauring, a leader in the Minnesotan Heathen community, said, this:

In my understanding, a beard is an affectation. There is nothing in the Eddas or Sagas to indicate that facial hair had religious significance in the late Iron Age.

If this person wants to adhere to ‘Viking’ norms, they may want to henna their beard. Apparently there is much archaeological evidence for this fashion taste. I also recommend eliminating potatoes, coffee, and chocolate from the diet, as well as not wearing black-dyed clothing. These are all post-colonial imports to Europe and would have been completely unknown to the travelers and traders we now call ‘Vikings.'”

Karl E. H. Seigfried of The Norse Mythology Blog also wondered if Elliot’s claims have any basis in history, as reconstructed practice is important to most Heathens.

I’d like to know more about Mr. Elliott’s claim that shaving goes against ‘the Viking way,’ as he calls his religion. Historically, there is evidence that Vikings sported a variety of facial hair fashions, including moustaches and shaved chins. Theologically, it’s difficult to imagine the gods of the north issuing commandments about fashion and personal grooming choices. The fact that Mr. Elliott complains in court documents about other inmates being allowed to have beards almost makes this seem like a case of kosher envy, of wanting to have a strict set of commandments dictated by the gods to a chosen prophet. So far, Heathenry has not had that sort of mass revelation.

In addition, due to Elliott’s “Viking” claims, media reports have all glommed onto an old 2006 USA Today article, in order to suggest that Asatru is universally or overwhelmingly associated with white supremacy in prisons. However, the old article actually provides multiple views with some skeptical of that assertion, and it does not draw any conclusions based on evidence.  Regardless, there are many questions still left unanswered in Elliott’s particular case.

Despite court decisions and settlements, and even federal legislation intended to protect the religious rights of prisoners, the line drawn between those rights and the responsibilities of correctional institution officials still remains fuzzy. Security is a real issue in those facilities, and pursuit of it often results in constitutional rights being infringed, if not trampled. The ongoing task for prisoner advocates is to ensure that precautions are reasonable, and applied consistently to all inmates, regardless of the religion they happen to practice.