April 2014 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court has announced it will hear a case on whether religious freedom grants prison inmates a right to grow beards.

The case involves an Arkansas inmate named Gregory Houston Holt, who is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. Holt, a self-described fundamentalist Muslim, believes that devout Muslim males must wear beards. He argues that the state’s refusal to allow him to keep facial hair beyond a certain length is a violation of his First Amendment rights.

NBC News quoted Holt’s hand-written plea to the high court in which he said that Arkansas’ corrections officials had made him and other inmates choose “to either obey their religious beliefs and face disciplinary action on the one hand, or violate those beliefs in order to acquiesce” to prison regulations.

Arkansas corrections officials al­low inmates to wear only neatly trimmed mustaches and short beards (under one-quarter inch) in the case of skin problems. They argue that beards are a security threat because prisoners who escape could easily alter their appearance thanks to a quick shave, and that inmates could use beards to make it less obvious that they are hiding things in their cheeks. The state has also argued that facial hair could potentially lead to fights with prison barbers who do not groom the beards to the inmate’s liking.

The Supreme Court had previously granted Holt permission to grow a half-inch long beard while his case is on appeal.

Holt is in prison for multiple offenses. He first served time for making threats against then-President George W. Bush’s daughters, and in 2010 was sentenced to life in prison for stabbing his girlfriend. He is currently incarcerated at a maximum-security facility.

Given their unique security concerns, prisons have generally had the right to restrict religious liberty in ways that would be unacceptable in other contexts. But Holt cites a 2000 law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in his defense. That legislation was designed to assist houses of worship facing zoning issues and expand religious rights for prison inmates.

The case, Holt v. Hobbs, will be heard during the high court’s 2014-15 term.