A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas can grow a short beard for religious reasons. The decision in Holt v. Hobbs was hailed by a wide range of organizations involved in issues of religious liberty.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel of America, stated that the case was “a true victory for religious liberty.
“More than 40 states allow prisoners to grow beards in accordance with their religious beliefs, and now all states will be required to allow prisoners this religious freedom. We commend the Supreme Court for its unanimous decision today upholding the scope of religious liberty protected by RLUIPA. We hope that this decision will lead to the enhancement of other religious accommodations for prisoners, including religious dietary and Sabbath and holiday observance.”
The court’s decision in a case about religious liberty stands in contrast to the Hobby Lobby case that bitterly divided the justices in June, which was over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for certain employee medical needs under the health care overhaul.
The justices said that inmate Gregory Holt could maintain a half-inch beard because Arkansas prison officials could not substantiate claims that the beard posed a security risk.
Holt claimed that he has a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners’ religious rights. The law is similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that the court said in a 5–4 outcome in late June could be invoked by business owners who object to paying for specific medical items.
The Obama administration, the American Civil Liberties Union and the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, along with a long list of other religious groups, are supporting Holt.
Agudath Israel of America and the Orthodox Union, together with other leading Jewish organizations, filed an amicus curiae (friend of the court) brief on behalf of the prisoner. The brief was written by noted constitutional attorney Nathan Lewin on behalf of COLPA, the national Jewish Coalition on Law and Public Affairs.
“The Orthodox Union respects the rights of all individuals of faith to follow their religious tenets. The unanimous decision by the justices of the Supreme Court is a victory for all religions and anyone who wishes to follow his/her faith and proves that government institutions cannot place substantial burdens on religious practices,” said Nathan Diament, executive director for public policy of the Orthodox Union.
Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that Arkansas can satisfy its security concerns in some other way when “so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security.”
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent in the Hobby Lobby case, remarked on her view of the differences between the two cases in a brief separate opinion Tuesday. Unlike the exception the court approved in June for Hobby Lobby, “accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,” Ginsburg wrote.
Judd P. Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, expressed disappointment with the ruling, but said the court “emphasized that prisons are dangerous places” and that judges must take security into account when analyzing religious freedom claims.
Holt is serving a life sentence for a brutal assault and is being held 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.
Holt argued in court papers that his obligation to grow a beard comes from an Islamic religious text that 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.
“The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today: government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices,” said Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who represented the plaintiff. “Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to. What’s more, the Court’s unanimous decision today, and the broad-based support among such diverse groups in this case, shows that religious liberty remains one of the central ideals of America that unifies us as a nation.”