The Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to side with an Arkansas prison inmate who says his Muslim beliefs require him to grow a half-inch beard.
“Americans do not, per se, leave their religious rights at the prison gate,” said Rabbi Abba Cohen of Agudath Israel’s Washington office, in a statement on the case that has obvious significance to Orthodox Jewish inmates as well. “For that reason, Congress passed RLUIPA, which protects the religious practice of those who are incarcerated. This law does not offer either prison concerns or religious rights unequivocal preference but, rather, requires a reasonable balancing of those interests.”
The justices took up their first religious liberty case since the Hobby Lobby case bitterly divided them in June over whether family-owned corporations could refuse to cover employee medical expenses that conflicted with their religious beliefs under the health-care overhaul.
There was no such division evident in the courtroom Tuesday as several justices were openly skeptical of arguments made by a lawyer for Arkansas in defense of a policy that allows mustaches for all inmates and a few days’ growth for prisoners with skin conditions, but no beards.
The no-beard policy has no religious exception, Arkansas Deputy Attorney General David Curran said, because prisoners can hide items in beards and change their appearance by shaving.
Justice Samuel Alito suggested a simple solution to the concealment issue: Give the inmate a comb and instruct him to comb the beards. “If there’s a SIM card in there, a revolver…comb it and it will fall out,” Alito said to laughter.
Curran agreed. “That sounds like something that could be done,” he said.
Thirty-nine-year-old Gregory Holt, who is serving a life sentence for a brutal act of assault, claims a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners’ religious rights.
The Obama administration, the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops along with a long list of other religious groups are supporting Holt. The Orthodox Union as well has expressed support for Holt’s cause.
“I think it is really important to recognize the broad-based support that we have had in this case,” said Hannah Smith, lead counsel for the Beckett Fund in an interview with Hamodia. “The wide range of organizations that expressed support demonstrates the importance of religious liberty to Americans.”
The Beckett Fund, whose mission statement announces its goal as “to protect religious expression of all faiths,” is representing Holt’s case together with Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty expert at the University of Virginia.
Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, lives at a maximum security prison 80 miles southeast of Little Rock. His case first came to the court’s attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas’ no-beard rule.
More than 40 states allow inmates to keep beards.
An Islamic religious text says Muslims should cut their mustaches and leave their beards.
Holt said he understands that statement to mean he should grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch beard as a compromise because California allows Muslim inmates to wear beards of that length.
“Religious protection in prison is an important part of rehabilitation,” said Mrs. Smith. “Studies show that prisoners who engage in religious practice while in prison do better; we should be doing what we can to encourage it.”
Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia were among those on the bench who sounded frustrated with the limited nature of what they were being asked to decide.
“I don’t want to do this a half-inch by a half-inch,” Scalia said.
Roberts said the argument made by Mr. Laycock on Holt’s behalf was easy, but that the court wants to know where to draw the line to accommodate religious freedom on the one hand and the state’s legitimate security needs, on the other.
But Laycock said the justices should wait for another case to tackle more difficult questions, and he predicted that a case of an inmate wanting a full beard would be next.
A decision is expected by late spring.