March 2015 Church & State | People & Events

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an Arkansas prisoner must be permitted to grow a half-inch beard for religious purposes.

In a 9-0 decision handed down Jan. 20, the high court said Gregory Holt, who goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammed and identifies as a devout Salafist Muslim, has the right to grow a beard because the Arkansas Department of Correction failed to show that doing so would pose a substantial security risk.

“We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise,” wrote Justice Samuel A. Alito. “Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband.”

Holt sought the right to grow the short beard, but officials at the prison where he is incarcerated denied the request. The prison bans all facial hair for prisoners, ostensibly for security purposes – although prisoners suffering from skin conditions are given an exception and allowed to grow quarter-inch beards.

“Prisons have unique security concerns, but that doesn’t mean they can impose irrational and arbitrary rules on inmates that infringe on religious freedom,” said Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United, in a press statement. “The court today struck the proper balance.”

In a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the Holt v. Hobbs case, attorneys for Americans United argued that Holt should have been permitted to grow a modest beard in accordance with his faith. Americans United noted that allowing Holt to grow the beard in no way infringed on the rights of third parties.

The brief rejected the argument that Holt’s request for a beard poses a security concern, noting that prison officials presented no evidence that a modest beard could ever put inmates or guards in danger or make it easier for Holt to escape.

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg echoed AU’s view, writing that this case isn’t the same as last year’s ruling concerning employee access to birth control.

“Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief,” Ginsburg wrote.