SCOTUS hears arguments about inmate’s religious right to have a beard

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case involving a prison inmate's religious right to grow facial hair. The case, Holt v. Hobbs, originated in Arkansas and involves inmate Gregory Holt, who states that his Muslim faith requires that he not cut his beard. Holt was convicted of stabbing his girlfriend in the neck and chest and is currently serving a life sentence. The prison where Holt is incarcerated has a policy that prohibits inmates from growing facial hair for security reasons. Holt alleges that this violates his right to the free exercise of religion under the First Amendment as administered by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. § 2000cc et seq. This law generally requires that prison officials accommodate inmates' religious practices.

Holt had proposed a compromise to the prison, requesting that he be permitted to grow and wear a half-inch beard. The prison system denied his request and the lower courts affirmed this decision. In ahandwritten petition for writ of certiorari, Holt explained the tenets of his faith and argued that the prison's grooming policy did not constitute the least restrictive means to further the compelling interest in maintaining security.

According to NPR, the justices seemed skeptical of the policy during oral arguments, poking holes in the state's arguments that the rule was necessary to prevent inmates from from quickly changing their appearance to disguise themselves and commit other crimes, and that the rule was required to prevent inmates from hiding contraband. In response to the state's argument about appearance changes, Justice Ginsburg questioned the fact that there was not a comparable rule about hair on inmates' heads, which the state said posed less of a risk. Justice Alito questioned whether shaving a half inch beard really represented a bigger difference than shaving a head full of hair. The Columbus Dispatch reports that Justice Alito also elicited laughs from the room with his response to the contraband argument, when he stated that the prison could develop a comb to put through inmates' beards and that “If there’s anything in there ... a tiny revolver, it’ll fall out,”

SCOTUS Blog provides a full history of the case, complete with links to documents filed, here. The blog also offers a thorough plain English description of the case, here.