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Why religious freedom for prisoners matters

The Supreme Court will today consider its newest religious freedom case, in which the question is whether a Muslim prisoner should be allowed to grow a half-inch beard. But the case also raises a simpler question: Why should anyone care?

I often get this question when I tell people about my work defending religious freedom for prisoners. They first ask, “What crime did he commit?” and “How long is his sentence?” And then they conclude: “If he committed a crime, he deserves to be punished; who cares if he can grow a beard?”

{mosads}I think there are three reasons we should care—a good reason, a better reason, and the best reason.

The good reason to care about religious freedom for prisoners is that it benefits society. When prisoners are allowed to practice their faith, they are less violent in prison and less likely to commit a crime after release. According to two of the largest studies, allowing prisoners to participate in a religious program reduced the rates of new crimes after release by 14 percent to 40 percent. Allowing them to participate in similar secular programs reduced the rates of new crimes after release by only 5 percent to 10 percent. In short, protecting prisoners’ religious freedom is smart: It reduces crime and saves taxpayers money.

The better reason to protect prisoners’ religious freedom is that if the government can restrict religious freedom for one person, it can restrict religious freedom for all of us.

This particular case, which involves a Muslim prisoner, may seem harmless enough—most Americans aren’t Muslims, and most Americans aren’t prisoners. But the ruling in this case will affect many others. In particular, this case centers on an important federal law, which says that the government cannot restrict religious practices unless it has a very powerful reason for doing so. The reason in this case, according to the government, is prison security—it claims that a half-inch beard could be used to conceal contraband or could be shaved off to facilitate an escape.

But the government’s security arguments are a sham. In fact, the prison in this case allowed beards for decades without any security problems. It still allows beards for medical reasons. And over forty state prison systems around the country allow beards—all without security problems. In other words, the government’s ban on beards is completely arbitrary. And if the government can ban a Muslim prisoner’s beard arbitrarily, it can ban other religious practices arbitrarily, too.

That brings us to the best reason for protecting prisoners’ religious freedom: It is the right thing to do. Of course, when someone commits a crime they deserve to be punished. They deserve to lose many of their rights. But they do not cease to be human.

Religious freedom is a fundamental aspect of our humanity. It is rooted in the fact that all of us are born with a religious impulse—a desire to seek transcendent truth, embrace it, and live our lives accordingly. When the government arbitrarily forces us to go against our conscience, it is treating us as less than fully human. Just as the government should not subject prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment, it should not arbitrarily deny them the ability to seek God.

Of course, that does not mean that religious freedom is unlimited. If our conscience tells us to harm someone else, we can be stopped—whether we are in prison or not. And especially in prison, religious freedom is subject to restrictions based on valid concerns about prison security.

But religious freedom cannot be restricted arbitrarily. When it is, it is a basic denial of our humanity. And that is worth caring about—whether the humanity is that of a Catholic nun who wants to serve the poor, or a Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a half-inch beard.

Goodrich is deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. He represents the Muslim prisoner in Holt v. Hobbs in the Supreme Court; earlier this year, he also represented Hobby Lobby in the Supreme Court.

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