Inmate beards, Facebook threats on U.S. top court's docket

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 05, 2014 7:03 AM

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Supreme Court opens on Monday a new term in which the nine justices will decide issues such as whether a Muslim prison inmate can have a beard and whether a man can be prosecuted for making threatening statements on Facebook.

The term, which runs to the end of June, is expected to be defined by whatever action the justices take on whether states can ban gay marriage. They have not yet agreed to hear any of the seven cases already decided by federal appeals courts.

Most legal experts expect them to decide the issue, with oral arguments early next year and a ruling likely in late June.

Arguments start on Monday in the cases the court has already accepted. It has agreed to hear a number of cases involving people challenging their treatment by the government, whether it be prosecutors, police or agencies.

Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt's challenge to a state prison grooming policy will be heard on Tuesday. Holt, who initially got the court's attention with a handwritten plea last year, says the policy violates a 2000 federal law giving religious rights to prisoners. He wants to grow a half-inch (2.5 cm) beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs.

Holt's lawyers note that 44 state prison systems and the federal government allow inmates to have similar beards. Legal experts predict he has a good chance of victory.

The case gives the court another chance to rule on religious freedom just four months after it decided that certain for-profit corporations can assert religious claims under another federal law.

The Facebook threat case, to be argued on Dec. 1, concerns Anthony Elonis, who posted statements on the social network in 2010 after his wife, Tara Elonis, left him. Aimed at his wife, co-workers and others, the posts were mostly in the form of rap lyrics in which he fantasized about committing violent acts.

Elonis was charged with violating a federal law that outlaws sending threatening communications. He was convicted on four of five counts and sentenced to 44 months in prison. The legal question is whether prosecutors needed to convince jurors that Elonis intended his statements to be interpreted as threats.

The first argument the court will hear on Monday comes in a North Carolina case brought by Nicholas Heien, who was charged and pleaded guilty to drug trafficking after police found cocaine in his car during a traffic stop. He challenged whether police had the right to stop his car for having a broken tail light when state law does not require two working tail lights.

During its term, the court also will hear important business-related cases. These include a closely watched housing discrimination case, a federal agency's claim against Abercrombie & Fitch Co for not hiring a Muslim women because she wore a head scarf and a dispute over whether workers should be paid for the time it takes to go through security checks.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)