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A unanimous Supreme Court endorses religious liberties in prison: In Plain English

Last fall, the Court heard oral arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, an Arkansas prisoner’s challenge to a state prison policy that prohibits him from growing the beard that he believes his religion – Islam – requires. It’s an interesting case, but it drew even more attention because of the close parallels to last year’s high-profile decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that businesses provide their female employees with health insurance that includes access to birth control. Would a Muslim inmate serving a life sentence for slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat fare as well with the Roberts Court as the devout Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby and believed that obeying the ACA’s birth-control mandate would cause them to violate their religious beliefs?

In an opinion by Justice Samuel A. Alito, who wrote the Hobby Lobby decision, the Court answered that question with a resounding (and, unlike Hobby Lobby, unanimous) yes.

The Court easily agreed with inmate Gregory Holt that the Arkansas policy prevents him from exercising his religion. Put simply, the prison will not allow him to follow the tenets of his religion and grow a beard. And it didn’t matter, the Court explained, that he could practice his religion in other ways, such as by observing Muslim holidays and having a prayer rug.

The Court was also unconvinced by the state’s justifications for the ban. For example, the Court did not agree that the ban was necessary to prevent inmates from hiding things like razor blades, needles, drugs, or cellphone SIM cards (which could be used to run drug rings from prison) in their beards. That particular argument, the Court suggested, was “hard to take seriously” because most things would be too big to hide in the half-inch beard that Holt is seeking permission to grow, and anything that was small enough to hide would probably fall out anyway. But in any event, if this were actually a problem, it could easily be eliminated simply by making an inmate run a comb through his beard.

The Court did agree, at least in the abstract, with the state’s next rationale for the ban – that, if an inmate with a beard escaped, it would be harder to find him if he could change his appearance by shaving off his beard. But the Court rejected the state’s argument that such concerns could justify a flat ban on beards. Instead, the Court observed, the state could head off this possible problem by keeping two pictures – one with a beard, one without – on file for any inmate who wants to grow a beard.

More basically, the Court was skeptical of Arkansas’s contention that it needs to be able to ban beards to keep its prisons safe. After all, the Court pointed out, the state does allow prisoners with skin problems to grow quarter-inch beards so that they don’t have to shave. If that’s the case, the Court asked, why can’t an inmate like Holt grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons? The Court just did not see that extra quarter-inch of facial hair making a difference. And perhaps even more significantly, the Court emphasized, many other states and the federal government would allow Holt to grow a beard – suggesting that Arkansas’ concerns may be overblown.

The Court did make clear that prison officials will still have a fair amount of leeway to take measures to keep prisons safe. For example, it noted, if an inmate appears to be using his religious beliefs as a front to get away with something illegal, prison officials can question whether his beliefs are actually sincere. But for Gregory Holt, the victory is a complete one: he gets to grow a half-inch beard.

Cases: Holt v. Hobbs

Recommended Citation: Amy Howe, A unanimous Supreme Court endorses religious liberties in prison: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog (Jan. 20, 2015, 2:39 PM),