Florida

He’s lost his freedom for life, but he’s won the religious freedom to grow his beard

Miami Herald

A federal court in Tallahassee has ruled that a Martin County man doing time can grow his beard to the length his spiritual belief dictates, regardless of the limits of the Florida Department of Corrections.

Durrell Sims, who converted to Islam in 2007, can grow a fist-length beard. But the benefits of this decision could easily extend to those of other faiths.

“The decision sets an important precedent in Florida under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act,” said K&L Gates attorney Olivia Kelman, who worked the case pro bono with fellow K&L attorneys Paul Hancock and Joshua Carpenter.

Durell Sims fitted.jpeg
Durrell Sims, as he looked in 2007. Florida Department of Corrections

“Mr. Sims is a devout Muslim whose conduct in prison has been exemplary,” U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle wrote in the conclusion of his decision. “He wishes to grow a beard in accordance with his religion and doing so would pose no security, misconduct or flight risk. The Department [of Corrections] has not shown that prohibiting him from growing a fist-length bears and trimming his moustache is the least restricted means of furthering a compelling government interest.”

Sims began serving life for first-degree attempted murder in 2006. At the time, the Florida’s DOC required all inmates who didn’t have a medical reason for not shaving to be clean-shaven. After his conversion, Sims filed a grievance, but didn’t file a lawsuit.

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Meanwhile, in line with his conversion, Sims began keeping a prayer rug, praying five times a day, consuming Islamic reading material, changed his diet and observing Ramadan.

After a 2015 U.S. Supreme Court decision said an inmate could grow his beard to half-inch length to comply with his religious beliefs. Florida’s DOC changed its facial hair policy to give inmates two options — half-inch beard or clean-shaven. Sims grew a half-inch beard, but felt the DOC’s rules inhibited his exercise of faith.

The DOC argued that it didn’t “substantially” burden Sims in that regard and pointed to Sims acknowledgment that he can shave if necessary.

“Determining the contours of a religious exercise is the province of the religious adherent, not the state,” Hinkle wrote.

Similarly, Hinkle rejected DOC arguments that allowing Sims’ fist-length beard would hinder security; hinder desired uniformity promoting discipline; be used for gang identification; or to obscure an inmate’s identity.

Since 1989, David J. Neal’s domain at the Miami Herald has expanded to include writing about Panthers (NHL and FIU), Dolphins, old school animation, food safety, fraud, naughty lawyers, bad doctors and all manner of breaking news. He drinks coladas whole. He does not work Indianapolis 500 Race Day.
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