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Why All Faiths are Rallying Around a Beardless Muslim


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The first case of this new Supreme Court term that involves religious liberty came before the justices Tuesday.

Holt v. Hobbs involves a convicted killer who complains the Arkansas Department of Corrections is interfering with his freedom of religion.

Muslim convert Gregory Holt's case is that rare one in which he hand-wrote his appeal to the Supreme Court justices and they decided to hear his case.

The Arkansas prison from where he was writing was refusing to let him grow a half-inch beard, something he insists is important to his faith.

Some Christians hearing about this Muslim's case may wonder why it should concern them.

Why Christians Should Care

"Religious freedom is for everyone, and if we don't protect it for everyone, then no one will be protected," lawyer Hannah Smith told CBN News outside the high court after the hearing.

Smith is senior counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which came to represent Mr. Holt after the Court took up his case.

"It's really important that people of all faiths recognize that they have to stand up for each other," she added.

University of Virginia Law Professor Douglas Laycock argued Holt's case before the Court and talked with CBN News about why it should matter to Christians.

"There are vastly more Christians in American prisons than there are Muslims," Laycock pointed out. "And they don't have the beard issue, but they have the same kind of problems with all their other issues. They have trouble getting religious literature."

"They have trouble getting their volunteers into the prisons," she continued. "They have trouble meeting for group worship. So Christian religious liberty is very much at stake in this case."

Holt's case is of such import it's garnered backing from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim organizations, and even the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Former inmate, now lawyer, Jesse Wiese told CBN News without the God he met in prison and the religion he was allowed to practice there, he would not have been able to turn his life around.

"I became a Christian while I was incarcerated, and the ability for me to actually practice that Christianity instead of leaving it within the front and back cover of the Bible so to speak was actually what built within me the ability to become a good citizen," he said.

After serving his time, Wiese attended the CBN-affiliated Regent University where he received his law degree.

Why Arkansas Prisons Oppose Beards

Arkansas Department of Corrections has argued it can't allow beards like Holt wants because of safety and security concerns.

"They have no examples of any case where a half-inch beard has successfully concealed anything," Smith arugued. "And so to the extent that they're arguing that this is a grave security concern, they simply don't have any evidence to back that up."

Forty-three other states allow prisoners to grow beards and so does the U.S. government in the prisons it operates. Arkansas even allows its prisoners to grow them for medical reasons like a dermatological condition.

Former inmate Wiese can't understand why Arkansas is being so stubborn about this. He believes prisons should bend over backwards to accommodate faith and religious practices because they're such a positive force.

"It's been proven time and time again that faith-based programming reduces recidivism or the likelihood that an individual's actually going to come back into prison," Wiese stated.

"And the primary goal of criminal justice is that people don't keep doing the same thing that they do, that their behavior changes, and it's been proven that religion changes behavior," he said.

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About The Author


As senior correspondent in CBN's Washington bureau, Paul Strand has covered a variety of political and social issues, with an emphasis on defense, justice, and Congress. Strand began his tenure at CBN News in 1985 as an evening assignment editor in Washington, D.C. After a year, he worked with CBN Radio News for three years, returning to the television newsroom to accept a position as editor in 1990. After five years in Virginia Beach, Strand moved back to the nation's capital, where he has been a correspondent since 1995. Before joining CBN News, Strand served as the newspaper editor for