The U.S. Supreme Court today ruled that the Arkansas Correction Department may not prohibit a Muslim inmate from growing a short beard.
This overturns a string of decisions by a magistrate, district judge and 8th Circuit Court of Appeals that the state should be given deference for security reasons in prohibiting beards.
The Supreme Court held that Arkansas was in violation of federal law that prohibits governments from imposing a “substantial burdern on the religious exercise” of an institutionalized person unless the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling public interest.
The inmate, Gregory Holt, also known as Muhammad, wanted to grow a half-inch beard. The department said such a beard could be used to hide contraband.
Wrote the Supreme Court:
While the Department has a compelling interest in regulating contraband, its argument that this interest is compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a ½-inch beard is unavailing, especially given the difficulty of hiding contraband in such a short beard and the lack of a corresponding policy regulating the length of hair on the head.
The Supreme Court decision was unanimous, though Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor filed a separate concurring opinion.
In the majority opinion, the court responded to the state’s arguments:
* [Even if there is an interest in prisoner identification,] As petitioner argues, requiring inmates to be photographed both with and without beards and then periodically thereafter is a less restrictive means of solving the Department’s identification concerns. The Department fails to show why its prison system is so different from the many institutions that allow facial hair that the dual-photo method cannot be employed at its institutions. It also fails to show why the security risk presented by a prisoner shaving a ½-inch beard is so different from the risk of a prisoner shaving a mustache, head hair, or ¼-inch beard.
* … the Department also fails to adequately explain the substantial underinclusiveness of its policy, since it permits ¼-inch beards for prisoners with medical conditions and more than ½ inch of hair on the head. Its failure to pursue its proffered objectives with regard to such “analogous nonreligious conduct” suggests that its interests “could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree. … Nor does the Department explain why the vast majority of States and the Federal Government can permit inmates to grow ½-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious reasons, but it cannot. Such evidence requires a prison, at a minimum, to offer persuasive reasons why it believes it must take a different course
The concurring opinion was a jab at the court majority in the Hobby Lobby case that allowed a religious exception from the law requiring contraceptives to be covered under private health insurance policies. Ginsburg wrote:
Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. On that
understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.