Federal Court Sides with Incarcerated Muslim Forced to Shave Beard

WASHINGTON, DC — On Tuesday, a federal court ruled that correctional officers cannot force prisoners to shave their beards. The ruling stems from a lawsuit filed by an incarcerated Muslim at a Colorado state prison who was forced to shave the beard he maintained for religious reasons. Last fall, Muslim Advocates filed an amicus brief arguing that the prison’s actions were a violation of religious freedom rights offered by the Free Exercise Clause and Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution.

The plaintiff, Tajuddin Ashaheed, is an observant Muslim who wears a beard for religious reasons. Ashaheed was forced to shave his beard while serving a short sentence in Colorado state prison. Although the prison has a policy requiring most prisoners to be clean shaven, the policy made an exception for prisoners like Mr. Ashaheed who maintain their beards for religious reasons. Nonetheless, a correctional officer forced Mr. Ashaheed to shave his beard in violation of the policy. Mr. Ashaheed sued in response, arguing that the forced shaving violated his religious rights. A district court dismissed his case and Mr. Ashaheed appealed. He was represented on appeal by the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm Kilmer, Lane & Newman. 

Muslim Advocates’ amicus brief argued that the district court’s decision to dismiss the plaintiff’s case and grant the defendants qualified immunity was a failure of its responsibility to protect the rights of  religious freedom of minorities in prison and contrary to clearly established federal law. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit agreed, reversing the case and remanding it to the district court to reinstate Mr. Ashaheed’s claims.

“Prison officials violated their own policies and Mr. Ashaheed’s obvious right to religious freedom. The Tenth Circuit’s opinion in this case reaffirms that the law is clear: prisons may not forcibly shave prisoners based on religious animus,” said Muslim Advocates Senior Staff Attorney Matt Callahan. “We hope this important ruling sends a wider message that the religious freedom rights of everyone, including the incarcerated, must be respected.”

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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.