NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Supreme Court Rules against Arkansas' Anti-Beard Policy

January 21, 2015

What does imprisonment mean for religious rights? The state of Arkansas has been embroiled in a dispute with a Muslim inmate for the last several years over this issue, but the Supreme Court resolved the issue on Tuesday. In Holt v. Hobbs, the Court ruled that a state policy prohibiting inmates from growing beards violated a plaintiff's religious liberty.

Gregory Holt, a Muslim serving a life sentence in Arkansas, filed a complaint when the Arkansas Department of Corrections refused to allow him to grow a beard. Beard growth is prohibited by the Department except for health reasons, but Holt wanted to grow a beard based on his religious beliefs. While he offered to keep his beard at one-half of an inch in length, the prison refused to allow an exemption from the rule, sparking the lawsuit.

The Court ruled that the Corrections Department's policy violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law passed in 2000 which limits states and localities from substantially burdening an institutionalized person's ability to exercise his religion. Limits on religious exercise will be struck down unless the government can identify a "compelling governmental interest" and show that the government action burdening religious exercise is the "least restrictive means" of furthering that interest.

In Holt's case, the state of Arkansas defended its no-beard policy on safety and security grounds -- that it prohibited the smuggling of contraband and prevented inmates from disguising their identities (the idea being that bearded prisoners, for example, might shave their beards in order to disguise themselves and possibly escape). While the Supreme Court agreed that these were valid concerns, it believed there were alternative ways to uphold these interests without burdening Holt's right to exercise his religion.

Source: "Holt v. Hobbs," Supreme Court of the United States, Case No. 13-6827. January 20, 2015. 


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