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Supreme Court Allows Inmate to Sue State for Cutting of Beard

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision this week to enable an Orthodox prisoner to sue the state of Ohio for cutting his beard signals a step forward for the religious rights of U.S. inmates.

The high court refused to block a lawsuit brought by Hbrandon Lee Flagner, who maintains that an Ohio prison grooming regulation violated his constitutional right to practice his religion.

Flagner, who became a Chasidic Jew while imprisoned for the murder of an 8-year-old girl, brought the lawsuit after prison officials twice cut his beard and sidelocks.

The case was one of two of Jewish interest in which the Supreme Court decided not to intervene on Monday.

In the second case, the justices chose to sidestep a challenge to a policy that allows student-led prayers at public high school graduations.

Ohio is one of many states that requires prisoners to follow grooming rules intended to control drugs and gang activity.

The Supreme Court has in the past determined that prison regulations alleged to infringe constitutional rights are judged under a “reasonableness” test that is less restrictive than that ordinarily applied to alleged infringements of fundamental constitutional rights.

Monday’s decision to let Flagner proceed with his lawsuit leaves prisoner advocate Isaac Jaroslawicz optimistic that courts are acknowledging basic freedoms for inmates.

“There needs to be respect for legitimate religious practices in the prison environment,” said Jaroslawicz, the executive director of the Aleph Institute, a not-for-profit national organization that provides religious, educational, advocacy and humanitarian services to nearly 4,000 Jewish men and women in federal and state prisons.

Flagner was at times exempted from the prison’s grooming regulations but his beard and sideburns were cut against his will in 1996 and 1998.

Abba Cohen, director and counsel of the Washington office of Agudath Israel of America, a fervently Orthodox organization, also lauded the decision.

Flagner won his right to his day in court, Cohen said, adding that it is right to put the burden on the state to make its case.

But Betty Montgomery, Ohio’s attorney general, has said Flagner’s case could spark other inmate challenges to prison rules.

Attorneys for 20 other states that joined Ohio in its appeal urging the Supreme Court to consider the case said if exemptions are allowed, “the ability of prison officials to maintain security will inevitably falter, thereby placing the safety and welfare of prison staff, inmates, and the general public at risk.”

Also Monday, the Supreme Court declined to take a case that argues student-led prayers at public high school graduations violate church-state separation.

Officials in Duval County, Fla., permit prayers at graduation ceremonies when the decision has been made by student referendum on the message of the graduation.

“This policy is designed to sneak prayer into school,” said Steve Sheinberg, assistant director of legal affairs for the Anti-Defamation League.

Sheinberg said the high court would probably wait for the issue to be more developed in other circuit courts before taking a case that would more clearly address the line between church-state separation and free speech rights of students.

Such policies are only in effect in Florida, Georgia and Alabama.

Observers say it is unlikely that many other school districts would want to adopt such a policy that gives students a platform to speak without school control.

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