Muslim Advocates Files Brief Opposing Virginia Prisons’ Discriminatory Beard Policy

WASHINGTON, DC — On Tuesday, Muslim Advocates submitted a brief in support of a Muslim inmate who sued because a Virginia prison effectively forced him to violate his religious beliefs by shaving his beard. The brief urges the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit to reverse a lower court’s decision striking down the prisoner’s lawsuit, DePaola v. Clarke, which challenged a Virginia Department of Corrections (VDOC) policy against long beards. 

The plaintiff, Eric DePaola, whose faith requires him to grow a beard, was disciplined by Red Onion State Prison in Wise County, Virginia for violating that policy, even though the prison failed to provide barber services that would have enabled him to keep his beard within the lengths of the prison’s policy. As part of his discipline, prison officials denied Mr. DePaola the chance to attend weekly prayer services with other Muslims, even by closed-circuit television. The plaintiff is represented on appeal by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center. 

Muslim Advocates’ amicus curiae brief highlights how the United States’ law and tradition require courts and prisons to provide the highest respect for religious practice, and the many ways in which the district court’s decision falls short of that standard. Muslim Advocates previously filed a brief in support of another Muslim at the same prison who challenged policies restricting beards and denying access to group prayer. 

“Prison officials have a duty under the law to protect the religious freedom of the prisoners in their care,” said Muslim Advocates Staff Attorney Matthew Callahan. “The Virginia Department of Corrections has repeatedly refused to live up to that duty. Muslim Advocates will continue to fight as long as is necessary to ensure the rights of Muslims and all others in the Virginia prison system are secure.”

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Muslim Advocates is a national civil rights organization working in the courts, in the halls of power and in communities to halt bigotry in its tracks. We ensure that American Muslims have a seat at the table with expert representation so that all Americans may live free from hate and discrimination.