UPDATE: In January, 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous victory for religious freedom in Holt v. Hobbs. It held that a federal civil rights statute requires prison officials to accommodate peaceful expressions of religious devotion, an issue arising from a dispute between a bearded Muslim inmate (named Holt) and the Arkansas Department of Correction. In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court found that Arkansas’ policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise and lacked the high degree of justification required for such a burden.
Last month, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the right of an Arkansas inmate, in prison for stabbing his ex-girlfriend, to wear a beard. Gregory Holt is a practicing Muslim. He claims wearing beard is his constitutional right to exercise his religion. The lawsuit was brought about on his behalf by the same group that pursued the successful Hobby Lobby decision that was released earlier this year.
Although Holt's case is the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court, restrictions on clothing and personal grooming in prison have been challenged before. American inmates of various faiths have pushed back against the limitations, but challenges to personal grooming and dress regulations have "rarely been successful," according to the American Civil Liberties Union. However, In 2011, a Muslim woman who was not allowed to wear a religious headscarf while incarcerated sued the county where she was held. She won her case last year, and the county was forced to adjust its policy to allow inmates to wear some religious attire. Some believe that Hobby Lobby decision will open the door for a slew of new lawsuits brought by people who feel the government is restricting their ability to practice their chosen religion.
There are two main federal laws that protect the religious rights of prisoners. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 affects federal prisons, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 affects state and local prisons. These laws generally balance an inmate's right to religious freedom with the government's interest in keeping prisons and prisoners safe, and leave prison systems with some amount of leeway in applying policy.
Holt's case is drawing attention for more than just its arrival at the country's highest Court. "Arkansas is staking out an extreme position—refusing to allow Mr. Holt to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons, which would be permitted in the large majority of U.S. prison systems," says David Fathi, director of the ACLU's project on U.S. prisons.
The case is seen as a very big deal among advocates for religious freedom.
Inmates in Arkansas state prisons must remain clean-shaven or maintain a "neatly trimmed" mustache. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, wanted to grow a half-inch beard in order to adhere to his faith.
Arkansas prison officials argue that facial hair presents a real security risk in a prison setting. In a 2012 hearing about Holt's case, officials said that inmates' beards can be used to hide and smuggle illegal items like razor blades, drugs, and even SIM cards for mobile phones. But the officials also acknowledged that prisoners can hide such items in places other than in their facial hair.
In fact, Arkansas has none of these restrictions for hair on top of the head. "You can have long hair, curly hair, Afros," and there is no rational basis for distinguishing between "hair on top of your head and in the front of your head,” one law professor involved in the case said.
During oral arguments, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer noted that there is not a single example, in states that allow beards, in which something was hidden in a beard.
In response to the cited security concern, Justice Samuel Alito asked why the prison can't just give the inmate a comb and tell him to comb out his beard, and if there's a "tiny revolver" hidden in his half-inch beard, "it will fall out.”
A decision is expected by next summer.