Forced Shaving of Muslim Colorado Prisoner’s Beard Unconstitutional
by David M. Reutter
The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the dismissal of a Colorado prisoner’s 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging a guard violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by forcing him to shave off his beard. The court found the prisoner’s complaint stated a claim and the guard was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Court’s August 10, 2021 opinion was issued in an appeal by prisoner Tajuddin Ashaheed. He has practiced Islam for decades, following the Sunnah practice of leaving one’s beard to grow. He believes that shaving his beard would violate a core tenet of his faith.
The Colorado Department of Corrections (CDOC) was well aware of Ashaheed’s beliefs. While serving a sentence in 1993, he signed a declaration of religious affiliation documenting his faith. He was allowed to grow a beard while serving that sentence. He was also allowed to wear a beard while serving a sentence in 2014 until his March 2016 parole.
He arrived at CDOC’s Denver Reception and Diagnostic Center to serve a short sentence for a parole violation. An intake officer verified Ashaheed’s religious affiliation and updated his file to reflect Muslim adherence. Once the intake process was complete, Ashaheed was ordered by Sgt. Thomas E. Currington to shave off his beard. The center’s policy requires prisoners to shave their beards at intake, but that policy provides an exemption for prisoners who wear a beard as part of a religious tenet.
Ashaheed invoked that exemption, but Currington said that to qualify the prisoner must grow a full beard. Ashaheed responded “that he is physically unable to grow a full beard, reiterated that his beard is worn for religious practices, and stated that his religious affiliation is documented in his CDOC file.” Currington “replied ‘that he didn’t want to hear it.’” He then threatened that Ashaheed “would be ‘thrown in the hole’”—solitary confinement—if he did not agree to be shaved. Ashaheed submitted to be shaved by the prisoner barber.
The complaint also alleged that other prisoners were allowed to keep items of religious significance, such as bibles, crosses, and wedding rings. Ashaheed asserted he was singled out because of his Muslim faith.
After he filed his lawsuit, Currington moved to dismiss. The district court granted the motion and Ashaheed appealed. While the district court found a constitutional violation existed, it found Currington was entitled to qualified immunity. The Tenth Circuit disagreed.
It concluded that when Currington violated the center’s policy by refusing to grant him the exemption under that policy, he violated the Ashaheed’s First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. “He not only intentionally discriminated against Mr. Ashaheed’s religion, but he did so with animus.” As the right to free exercise of religion was clearly established, Currington was not entitled to qualified immunity.
The Tenth Circuit also disagreed with the district court that Ashaheed failed to state an equal protection claim. “We do not find a meaningful distinction between a prisoner who invokes a policy-based religious distinction exemption to a beard-shaving requirement and prisoners who seek to keep religious items under a policy.
The district court’s order was reversed and remanded. See: Ashaheed v. Currington, 7 F.4th 1236 (10th Cir. 2021).
Related legal case
Ashaheed v. Currington
|7 F.4th 1236 (10th Cir. 2021)
|Court of Appeals