U.S. Supreme Court

Prison beard ban violates Muslim inmate's statutory religious rights, SCOTUS rules

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Man with beard

Photo of Gregory Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), courtesy of the Arkansas Dept. of Correction.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on behalf of a Muslim inmate who challenged Arkansas’ general ban on prisoner beards under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote the opinion (PDF) for the unanimous court finding a violation of the religious-protection law. The case is Holt v. Hobbs.

Prisoner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, wanted to grow a half-inch beard because of his religious beliefs. He contended the grooming policy by the Arkansas Department of Corrections substantially violated his exercise of religion in violation of RLUIPA. Holt had filed a pro se cert petition that was handwritten on a publicly available form.

Alito’s opinion agreed that the policy substantially burdened Holt’s exercise of religion. Though the corrections department had an interest in eliminating contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, Alito wrote, “we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests” as required to justify a burden on religion under RLUIPA.

It would be difficult to hide contraband in a half-inch beard, Alito said, and inmates could more easily hide contraband in hair on their head. “Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1/2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head,” Alito said. Alito also pointed out that corrections officials already search inmate hair and clothing, and could also search beards.

Corrections officials had also argued that inmates could shave their beards to disguise their identities for an escape, or to evade capture after an escape. But the corrections department could solve the problem by requiring photos for all inmates without their beards when they enter prison, and even periodically after that, Alito said. The corrections department also failed to explain why the identification risk for shaving a beard is greater than the risk posed by an inmate shaving head hair, a mustache (which is allowed), or the 1/4-inch beard that is allowed for dermatological conditions, Alito said.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor filed concurring opinions. Ginsburg, in a concurrence joined by Sotomayor, said she joins the court’s opinion based on the understanding that accommodating the inmate’s religious belief would not detrimentally affect others who don’t share his belief. The current case, she said, is unlike Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, which held that closely held corporations can’t be required to provide insurance coverage for contraceptives over their owners’ religious objections. Ginsburg had dissented in Hobby Lobby.

Sotomayor wrote a separate concurrence to emphasize that deference is due prison officials who offer plausible explanations supported by evidence to justify regulations that burden religion.

Related articles:

ABA Journal: “Inmate’s right to wear a beard is among cases coming up this SCOTUS term”

ABAJournal.com: “Inmate’s right to a beard to be decided by SCOTUS; prisoner filed handwritten cert petition”

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