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Fifth Circuit: Texas Muslim Prisoners May Have Right to Wear Beards

On November 21, 2007, the Fifth Circuit court of appeals ruled that Texas state prisoners who are Muslims may have the right to wear a beard.

Fredrick Gooden and Garrett Gibb, Texas state prisoners, filed suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a), against Texas prison and prison board officials, alleging, among other issues, that the Texas prison system's grooming policy requiring them to remain clean shaven substantially burdened the exercise of their Muslim religion. Because Texas prisoners who suffer from shaving bumps are allowed to wear a beard up to one-quarter inch in length, Plaintiffs argued that they should be given the same privilege based upon their religious beliefs and practices. Essentially, they claimed that the existence of the medical exception to the grooming policy proved that there was no security issue involved.

Following a hearing, a magistrate judge recommended that defendants' motion for summary judgment be granted and the complaint be dismissed with prejudice as frivolous and for failure to state a claim. In doing so, the magistrate judge found that the grooming policy did not impose a substantial burden on the practice of plaintiffs' religion and, alternatively, that the grooming policy "furthers the compelling government interest of security and does so by the least restrictive means." The district court accepted the recommendation, granted summary judgment and dismissed the complaint. Plaintiffs appealed.

The Fifth Circuit noted that the parties had contested whether the grooming policy imposes a substantial burden on the practice of the Muslim religion and, if so, whether it is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The Fifth Circuit held that, because summary judgment is only appropriate when there is no genuine issue of material fact in dispute, the district court erred in granting defendants' motion for summary judgment on the plaintiffs' RLUIPA claim. Furthermore, with respect to Gibb's RLUIPA claim, defendants had failed to make an argument that they were entitled to summary judgment. The Fifth Circuit therefore vacated the decision dismissing the RLUIPA claims. It also instructed the district court to determine whether Gibb was entitled to damages, in addition to injunctive relief, based upon the RLUIPA claim. Gooden did not appeal that issue. The Fifth Circuit also vacated the district court's order denying Gooden's motion for class certification and instructed the district court to consider the' motion under the standard set forth in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 23. The Fifth Circuit upheld the dismissal of the other claims and returned the case to the district court for further proceedings.

See: Gooden v. Crain, 255 Fed.Appx. 858 (5th Cir. 2007).

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Related legal case

Gooden v. Crain