Court Sides with Muslim Challenging Virginia Prisons’ Beard Policy

Muslim Advocates Brief Helps Obtain Reversal in Religious Freedom Case

WASHINGTON, DC — On Monday, a federal court ruled that Devion Gentry—a Muslim incarcerated at Nottoway Correctional Center in Burkeville, VA—can continue his lawsuit challenging a Virginia prisons’ requirement that he shave his beard in violation of his right to practice his Muslim faith. Muslim Advocates previously filed an amicus curiae brief urging the court to do just that, arguing that federal law was intended to protect religious practitioners like Mr. Gentry.

Mr. Gentry, like many Muslims, believes that his faith requires him to maintain a beard. The Virginia Department of Corrections maintained a policy that segregated prisoners with a beard into a restricted unit and refused to permit Mr. Gentry to rejoin the general population of the prison until he shaved. Further, prison officials forcibly shaved the beards of new prisoners who maintained beards for religious reasons but did not forcibly shave the beards of prisoners who maintained beards for non-religious reasons. The district court dismissed the case for failing to state claims under the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Mr. Gentry, represented on appeal by the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center and Goodwin Procter LLP, won reversal of that ruling on Monday. His case may now proceed in the trial court.

“Prisons are required to respect the religious rights of all people they house,” said Muslim Advocates Senior Staff Attorney Matt Callahan. “We are glad the Fourth Circuit took this step to protect the rights of Muslims and other religious practitioners. Mr. Gentry will now have his day in court to fight these discriminatory policies.”

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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.