No right to beard for Muslim inmate

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A Virginia judge ruled the prison system did not violate a Muslim man’s religious rights by not allowing him to grow a beard, which he argued was required by his religion.

50-year-old William Couch is serving multiple life sentences for rape and other crimes in a minimum security prison in Virginia which bans long hair and beards. Couch challenged the rule arguing it violates his right to practice his religion.

The rule is in place to help control the ease of changing ones appearance in the chance an inmate escapes. But, Jeffrey Fogel, the attorney for Couch, argued that his client is seeking no more than a 1/8 inch beard, which would be too insignificant to make it easy for him to alter his appearance after an escape. He has filed an appeal.

"Though it is quite clear that an inmate cannot secret weapons or contraband in a 1/8 inch beard, it is not clear than an inmate cannot change his appearance by shaving it, or identify himself as the member of a gang by growing it," US District Judge Samuel G. Wilson wrote.

"There is no conceivable security issue for a Muslim, with concededly sincere beliefs, to grow a 1/8-inch beard," Fogel said.

However the appeal is likely to be ineffective given court precedent. In 1999 a group of Muslims and Rastafarian inmates challenged the rule and lost at the Court of Appeals level.

In addition, Couch has shaved in the past, even prior to the policy. He has only recently decided that his Islamic faith requires him to grow a beard. It will be hard to convince a higher court to alter the policy given his and the courts pasts.

Virginia is one of a small number of states with a policy that limits inmates’ hear lengths and beards.