A recent decision by the US Supreme Court about the religious rights of inmates in US prisons may have future implications on the rights of Sikh inmates who wish to maintain their uncut hair or other articles of faith. In its recent decision regarding a Muslim inmate’s challenge to the State of Arkansas Department of Corrections policy requiring inmates to shave their beards, the Supreme Court recognized the realities around security concerns and whether these justified the violations of religious freedom:
The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by the Arkansas Department of Correction. Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man’s religious right.
The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state’s no-beard policy.
As this case involves a Muslim man’s desire to grow a short beard which is not consistent with Sikh religious tradition, the decision may not be immediately applicable to the civil rights concerns of Sikh inmates in US prisons. However, the acknowledgement of a prisoner’s religious freedoms is a step towards ensuring that grooming policies justified in the name of security are legitimized by realities rather than presumptive standards.
The opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, said the state has a legitimate need to prevent the concealment of contraband, which was its stated reason for the policy. But, Alito said, “the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is hard to take seriously.” [NBC News]
Over the longer term, this legal precedent may benefit Sikh inmates who are not permitted to maintain their uncut hair nor wear a turban. With individual states enforcing their own policies, there is presently no national consistency in this regard. While in some states, recent victories have seen the religious rights of Sikh inmates be extended, in other cases, Sikh inmates have been forcibly shaved (as in the case of Jagmohan Singh Ahuja in Florida) or they have been forced to wear other types of headcoverings instead of traditional Sikh turbans.