Lawsuit challenges grooming policy in Virginia prisons

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - A federal appeals court revived a lawsuit challenging the Virginia prison system's inmate grooming policy Friday, ruling that officials failed to prove that allowing a Sunni Muslim prisoner to grow a short beard would create a security problem.

The unanimous ruling by a three-judge panel of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is a victory for inmate William R. Couch, who says his religion requires him to maintain a 1/8-inch beard. Couch, who is serving multiple life terms for rape and other convictions, shaved his beard after the Virginia Department of Corrections adopted the grooming policy in 1999 but wants to regrow it in keeping with his faith.

The policy says beards are prohibited for health reasons and because they could be used to conceal contraband or promote identification with gangs. Escapees also could alter their appearance by shaving, making them more difficult to identify and apprehend, according to prison officials. Inmates who can't shave for medical reasons are exempted from the policy and are allowed to maintain a 1/4-inch beard.

Couch argued that if the prison system can exempt inmates for medical reasons, it should be able to accommodate his religious beliefs as well. U.S. District Judge Samuel C. Wilson last year sided with prison officials who denied Couch's request, however, and dismissed his lawsuit challenging the policy.

The appeals court said a federal law protecting prisoners' religious rights requires the government to use "the least restrictive means" to further its interest in prison security. Affidavits from prison officials failed to demonstrate that they even considered whether they could create a religious exemption and still meet their objectives, the court said.

"Apart from merely reiterating Couch's request, neither affidavit addresses the feasibility of implementing a religious exemption or discusses whether a one-eighth-inch beard would in fact implicate the identified health and security concerns in the Policy," Judge William Traxler wrote.

The panel returned the case to the district court for reconsideration.

Couch's attorney, Jeffrey Fogel, said he was optimistic about getting the policy changed.

"I think they're going to have a third time explaining why they can't accommodate Mr. Couch when they can accommodate others with a quarter-inch beard for secular reasons," Fogel said in a telephone interview.

Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Joining Traxler in the opinion were appeals court Judge Dennis Shedd and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.