SCOTUS rules Muslim inmate should be permitted to have beard

The Supreme Court issued an opinion yesterday in a case we discussed last fall. The case of Holt v. Hobbs involved a Muslim man incarcerated in Arkansas who wanted to grow a beard in accordance with his religion, but in violation of prison policies prohibiting beards for inmates. Although prisoner Gregory Holt believed that his religion forbade him from shaving his beard at all, he proposed a compromise of growing a half-inch beard. Prison officials refused, and Holt challenged this decision as a violation of his right to exercise his religion.

In a unanimous decision, with an opinion penned by Justice Alito, the Court ruled that the Arkansas prison policy as applied violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. Per the opinion, "the Act prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest."

The Court ruled that while Arkansas did have a compelling government interest in prison safety, it was not clear that the policy regarding facial hair furthered that interest, and it did not do so in the least restrictive manner. Specifically, the Court was not convinced by the state's argument that prisoners could hide contraband in beards, given the short length that Holt was suggesting, and the fact that prison officials could use combs to check for dangerous materials. The Court was also not persuaded by the claim that escaped prisoners could conceal their identities by shaving their beards and suggested that if prison officials were to simply photograph prisoners before and after growing a beard that this would resolve that potential problem. The Court was also troubled by the fact that other states permitted inmates to have 1/2 inch beards without issue and concerned about the "underinclusiveness" of the policy, given the fact that prisoners with skin conditions were permitted to grow 1/4 inch beards.

While the decision was unanimous, Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor each filed a concurring opinion. Justice Ginsburg's concurrence distinguished the case from the Hobby Lobby case, which also involved questions about religious freedom, because, "accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief." Justice Sotomayor emphasized that deference was still due to prison officials in drafting these policies, and that officials were not required to consider every avenue of less restrictive means to accomplish their interests, but only to, "only “refute the alternative schemes offered by the challenger.”

SCOTUS Blog also offers a plain English interpretation of the case and details and documents from the case's history.

Photo courtesy of Arkansas Dept. of Corrections.