Couch v. Jabe, No. 11-6560

Decided: May 11, 2012

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the District Court’s grant of summary judgment to prison officials regarding the prison’s “no beard” policy.  William Couch is a Sunni Muslim and currently incarcerated in a state correctional facility.  He claims that his Muslim faith requires him to grow a beard of at least one-eighth inch in length.  He has been incarcerated since 1990 and is serving multiple life sentences.  In 1999, the prison enacted a grooming policy whereby no men are allowed to maintain beards, unless they have an excuse from a doctor because shaving causes irritation.  If a doctor grants a prisoner a “no shave pass,” they are allowed to grow a one-quarter inch beard.  Couch sued the prison for violating his First Amendment rights and for violating the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).

In analyzing the claim under the RLUIPA, the Fourth Circuit considered three criteria.  First, they concluded that Couch had showed a substantial burden on religious exercise due to primary Islamic texts considering it a sin to not maintain a beard.  Second, the Court concluded that the prison had demonstrated a compelling governmental interest because hair can be used to conceal contraband, create a health safety hazard, and could compromise the ability to identify a prisoner.  Finally, the prison officials were also required to show that they had used the least restrictive means in furthering the compelling government interest.  The prison officials failed to demonstrate this because Couch had proposed a less restrictive means: a religious exemption from the policy.  Since the “no shave pass” created an exception for prisoners with shaving sensitivity, this showed that a religious exemption could work within the policy as well.  The order for summary judgment was vacated and the case was remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

Full Opinion

-Jennifer Routh

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