Unanimous Supreme Court affirms Muslim inmate's right to grow beard

The US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that an Arkansas prison must offer a religious exception to the facility's no-beard rule. Prison officials had argued that beards pose a security risk.

Arkansas Department of Correction/Reuters
Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt is shown in this undated Arkansas Department of Correction photo. Mr. Holt is permitted to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a closely watched religious rights decision that threw out a state prison policy barring beards.

A Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas has won his battle to grow a beard for religious purposes over objections by prison officials.

In a unanimous decision, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that the inmate has a right to grow his beard in accord with Islamic beliefs, and that prison officials had failed to demonstrate a sufficient reason to refuse to provide a religious accommodation.

The court ruled that under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), state prison officials are required to offer an accommodation whenever a prison policy substantially burdens an inmate’s religious exercise.

Courts will uphold the prison policy when officials are able to demonstrate that it constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering the government’s compelling interest. But Arkansas officials did not do so, the court said.

Arkansas corrections officials said they enforced a no-beards policy in furtherance of their compelling interest in maintaining safety and security at the prison, including preventing smuggling of contraband.

Rejecting that argument, the high court said there were other ways to protect prison security that were less burdensome on religious liberty than forcing an observant Muslim to shave.

“We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the 16-page opinion.

“Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband,” Justice Alito said.

Prison officials had maintained a policy prohibiting inmates from growing beards unless they were suffering from a diagnosed skin condition. Officials said the no-beard policy was aimed at preventing the smuggling and concealment of contraband in facial hair. They also expressed concern that an inmate who escaped from prison might substantially alter his appearance by quickly shaving off his beard.

Inmates with skin conditions were permitted to grow ¼-inch beards, under the Arkansas policy. The Muslim inmate had requested the opportunity to grow a ½-inch beard.

The inmate is Gregory Holt, who also uses the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad.

Prison officials refused to deviate from their grooming policy. They noted that the prison staff had provided several other accommodations to allow the inmate to practice his religion, including providing a prayer rug, access to religious materials, the ability to correspond with a religious advisor, special Islam-authorized foods, and observance of religious holidays.

A federal magistrate, a federal judge, and a panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the prison officials that they were not required to provide a religious exemption from their no-beard policy. The lower courts agreed that the no-beard policy advanced a compelling interest in maintaining prison security.

In reversing the Eighth Circuit, Alito said that the lower courts misunderstood the expansive protection of religious liberty required under federal law.

“RLUIPA … does not permit such unquestioned deference [to prison policies],” he said. “RLUIPA, like the [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] makes clear that it is the obligation of the courts to consider whether exemptions are required under the test set forth by Congress.”

Last June, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that under a similar law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal government was required to offer a religious accommodation to the owners of businesses who objected to providing certain kinds of contraceptives in their company health care plans under the Affordable Care Act.

That case split the high court in a highly contentious 5 to 4 decision.

Tuesday’s decision in the Arkansas prisoner case came without dissent. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg explained the difference in a brief concurrence joined by Sonia Sotomayor.

“Unlike the exemption this Court approved in [the Hobby Lobby case], accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,” Justice Ginsburg wrote. “On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion,” she said.

Ginsburg had objected to granting a religious exemption to the owners of Hobby Lobby because she said the company’s employees were entitled to full coverage of all contraceptive methods required under the ACA. In this way, she said, the Hobby Lobby owners were imposing their beliefs on their employees.

The majority justices in the Hobby Lobby case rejected that view.

Tuesday’s prison beard case was more straightforward, involving a prison inmate, his beliefs, and his facial hair. 

In the end, the high court found the Arkansas officials’ reasons for rejecting a religious accommodation unpersuasive.

“The Department worries that prisoners may use their beards to conceal all manner of prohibited items, including razors, needles, drugs, and cellular phone subscriber identity module (SIM) cards,” Alito said.

“We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a ½-inch beard is hard to take seriously,” Alito wrote.

He said it was more likely that inmates would seek to hide contraband in the longer hair on their heads than in any facial hair.

Alito noted that the vast majority of state prisons and the federal prison system permit inmates to grown 1/2-inch beards.

“That so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security suggests that the Department could satisfy its security concerns through a means less restrictive than denying petitioner the exemption he seeks,” Alito wrote.

Eric Rassbach, a co-counsel in the case with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, praised the high court’s ruling.

“This is a victory not just for one prisoner in Arkansas, but for every American who believes and wants the freedom to act on those beliefs,” he said.

The Rev. Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, also praised the decision.

“Prisons have unique security concerns, but that doesn’t mean they can impose irrational and arbitrary rules on inmates that infringe on religious freedom,” he said. “The court today struck the proper balance.”

The case was Holt v. Hobbs (13-6827).

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