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Saturday, April 08, 2006

Op-ed on Satnam Singh Haircut Controversy

Jac Wilder VerSteeg of the Palm Beach Post (Florida) writes the following in an op-ed entitled, "Where freedom is a cut above":
Satnam Singh says his religious beliefs - he's a Sikh - should prevent Florida prison officials from cutting his hair and shaving his beard when he enters the system next week. Post reporter Lona O'Connor wrote about the case Wednesday.

Singh just finished a three-year stint for passport fraud in federal prison, where the feds let him keep his hair. Next, he'll serve a state term handed down in 2003 after the illegal immigrant used someone else's identity to buy a St. Lucie County condo.

The quick and satisfying answer is that if Singh's religious beliefs did not prevent him from committing fraud and forgery, then his beliefs hardly could be substantial enough to bar a haircut. However good it feels to blurt that response, the problem of how religious beliefs and the civil authorities' judicial systems interact is much more complicated.

Florida, of all states, should be sympathetic to religious accommodation of its inmates. No less an authority figure than Jeb Bush has declared that religious faith is a powerful tool for rehabilitation.

Under Gov. Bush's guidance, Florida has opened three faith-based prisons. The most recent one, a prison for men, opened just last November in Crawfordville. It joins another men's prison in Lawtey and one for women in Tampa.

Gov. Bush has said, "My expectation is we'll have a lower recidivism rate" in faith-based prisons. But, appropriately, we'll just have to take that on faith, since there is as yet no data to support it.

Gov. Bush favors Christian programs. But most religions, including Sikhism, have prohibitions against stealing, drug use, murder and other crimes. If devout people, of whatever faith, are more likely to reform their lives, then Florida should be eager for Singh to keep the unshorn hair and turban that are fundamental expressions of his devotion to Sikhism.

If religion can help rehabilitation, it also can cause problems. There are the fakers who pretend to be religious. Inmates can use religion to harass officials with lawsuits over special diets, access to services or permission to perform rituals. The issues can become very involved. But a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, gives inmates some clout.

The Supreme Court, in upholding the law, said corrections officials can't impose unnecessary burdens on inmates trying to practice their religion. The court also ruled, however, that the law does not "elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution's need to maintain order and safety."

So, is it safe to let Singh and other inmates wear turbans in which they might conceal weapons or contraband?

There are so many religions (and inmates) that it's impossible to articulate one rule to cover all circumstances. But, again adopting Florida's philosophy, it would seem wise for prisons to be as tolerant of religious practices as is practical.

Whether it was wise for Florida to move beyond tolerance to actively setting up faith-based prisons is another matter. To me, it crosses the church-state line. That line, however, necessarily is blurry, at least in America, which is dedicated to both religious and secular freedom.

Other countries have tried to solve the conflicts inherent in such a system by attempting to obliterate one half of the church-state balancing act. Totalitarian communist states were (the Soviet Union) and are (Cuba, China) hostile to organized religion.

Afghanistan presents the other face, with the eye-opening attempt by religious leaders to use the country's courts to execute a man whose alleged crime was converting to Christianity. That incident, in a country with a U.S.-backed government, shows the difficulty the Bush administration's nation-builders face in trying to create a Middle East and Persian Gulf region based on secular democracy rather than strictly on Islamic law.

Against such global matters, a haircut might seem insignificant. But the crux of all these conflicts is an individual's religious freedom, which, in America, we value.

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