The Supreme Court on Tuesday ruled in favor of the religious freedom claims of a prisoner in Arkansas who wanted to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith, but was blocked by the Department of Corrections’ policy that forbids beards except for diagnosed dermatological problems.
In a 9-0 opinion written by Justice Samuel Alito, the Court said that the prison policy in this case violated a federal statute designed to protect the religious exercise of prisoners. Alito said that the policy “as applied to this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest.”
Correction officials had argued that the policy was put in place to protect other inmates and deter individuals from attempting to hide contraband.
“This is a huge win for religious freedom and for all Americans,” said Eric Rassbach, Deputy General Counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom who was co-counsel in the case. “What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best.”
The decision is a significant victory for the inmate, Gregory Holt, and his religious liberty claims, but Alito made clear that existing law still “affords prison officials ample ability to maintain security.”
Gregory Lipper of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, who filed a brief in favor of Holt said on Tuesday the ruling means the justices want a good reason in order to “burden an inmate’s religious exercise.”
“Here the prison supplied only its say-so. It offered no evidence that allowing Mr. Holt to wear a 1/2 inch beard would threaten prison security, other inmates, or anyone else.” Lipper said.
Alito wrote, “We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into an within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1/2 inch beard is hard to take seriously.” He said an item of contraband “would have be be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1/2 inch beard.”
A significant problem for Arkansas, is that more than 40 other states and the federal prisons allow a one-half inch beard.
In 2010, Holt was convicted of first-degree battering and sentenced to life. Five years earlier he had pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap and harm the daughters of President George W. Bush. In a handwritten petition, Holt asked that the Justices take up his case because the “no beard grooming” policy violated his rights to “practice Islam as he believes it is supposed to be practiced by wearing the beard.” He said he was a devoted Salafi Muslim.
In Court papers, David A. Curran, Arkansas Deputy Attorney General had argued that the Court should give deference to the prison’s security objectives. He said that RLUIPA was not intended to “elevate accommodation of religious observances over an institution’s need to maintain order and safety. “
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a brief concurring opinion joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor distinguishing this case from last term’s Hobby Lobby opinion. In that case a divided court ruled in favor of the religious freedom claims of closely held for profit corporations with sincerely held religious objections to including a full range of contraceptives in their insurance plans. Ginsburg said, “unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief” .