Trio of attorneys take on religious liberty

Cases hinge on federal law that has been ­subject of some high-profile court battles

By Glenn Evans
Longview News-Journal

LONGVIEW, Texas (AP) — A Longview lawyer’s win on behalf of a Muslim inmate who wanted a beard to express his faith clears one of several religious freedom cases a trio of attorneys is pursuing at the federal level.

“We hope that this results, and expect it will result, in systemic change,” attorney Eric Albritton told the Longview News-Journal. “So all folks of all faiths will be allowed to practice their religion in a way that is appropriate.”

“This is really not a Republican issue, it’s not a Democratic issue. It’s not a Muslim issue, it’s not a Christian issue — this is a societal issue.”

It’s not a Jewish issue, either, though Albritton, Michael Benefield and Shawn Latchford have a Jewish plaintiff who wants the state prison system to allow his beard and yarmulke as religious expressions.

Benefield, now on his own but formerly part of the Albritton Law Firm in Longview, scored the latest victory as lead attorney for David Rasheed Ali, an inmate of the Michael Unit outside Palestine.

Ali filed his lawsuit six years ago seeking to grow a 4-inch beard and wear his kufi, like the Jewish yarmulke small cap that closely hugs the skull.

U.S. District Judge Zack Hawthorne of Lufkin called the Longview lawyers to represent Ali before the case went to trial in July 2014. The one-week trial sided with Ali, and the government appealed that decision to the 5th Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The federal judges sided with Ali earlier this month.

“It’s kind of an amazing story,” Benefield said of Ali, who is up for parole in June under convictions for arson and robbery. “When he first went in, he was having troubles adjusting to prison life. And he kind of found his way back to his religious roots. His disciplinaries went away. It was evident to me and a lot of us the value religion has on a lot of inmates.”

Albritton said the team used the Texas Department of Criminal Justice-Institutional Division’s own research against it.

“We discovered TDCJ, a number of years ago, studied the benefits of religion regarding trouble with inmates and recidivism,” Albritton said.

“TDCJ has known for a long time that, when you allow people to faithfully and robustly follow their religion, it has great institutional benefits. But also,” he said, “it has great societal benefits in the reduced recidivism. They know, from their internal research done with Baylor University, that religion is important.”

Benefield said Ali’s outcome should push similar cases pending in Tyler that also involve Muslims wanting to grow 4-inch beards to express their faith.

The cases hinge on a federal law that’s been the subject of some high-profile court battles, including the one in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Hobby Lobby has the religious freedom to withhold contraception from employees’ health insurance coverage.

Tailored, state versions of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act are being cited in so-called bathroom laws forcing transgender people to use public rest rooms corresponding to the gender on their birth certificates.

“It’s kind of a hot issue in the law right now — basically, people’s religious rights and keeping government out of people’s religions,” Benefield said.

The firm represented Ali on court-set rates, and Albritton estimated an out-of-pocket net loss of $50,000, mostly for expert witnesses for which the court reimbursed only travel costs.