Last year, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case, Holt v. Hobbs, that was all about a Muslim inmate from Arkansas, Gregory H. Holt, who wanted to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his beliefs.
The problem was that Arkansas happened to be one of the only states that banned beards of any length for security reasons. Hence, the legal battle. (For the record, more than 40 states allow prisoners to have half-inch beards and most allow even longer ones.)
(The oral arguments even included Justice Antonin Scalia saying what I thought was his best line ever.)
Anyway, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled today in favor of Holt, allowing him to keep his half-inch beard.
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. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg added in a concurrence that this case was different from last year’s Hobby Lobby case (in which she dissented with the Court’s opinion) for one key reason:
… accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.
Americans United for Separation of Church and State agreed with the decision:
“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 the Rev. Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United. “The court today struck the proper balance.”
I agree with the decision, too. There’s no reason to worry, even for security reasons, about a short beard that a prisoner says is a religious requirement. Letting him keep it means everything to him and hurts nobody else in the process. It shouldn’t have required the Supreme Court to make that distinction.
(Image via Shutterstock. Portions of this article were published earlier)