by Alex J. Luchenitser, Associate Legal Director, Americans United for Separation of Church and State
The Supreme Court this week heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a challenge to a prison’s refusal to let an inmate grow a half-inch beard to comply with his Islamic religious beliefs. Most church-state cases that reach the Court are deeply divisive. In Holt, on the other hand, there appears to be a broad consensus among religious-freedom advocacy groups, as well as the justices themselves, that the prisoner should prevail.
Groups that are typically at odds in church-state cases, such as my organization Americans United for Separation of Church and State and the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, supported the prisoner’s claims. And from the questions posed by the justices, it appears that the prisoner will win unanimously or nearly so.
The prisoner, Gregory Holt (who now goes by the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad), brought his claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which is known by the difficult-to-pronounce acronym RLUIPA. RLUIPA prohibits a prison from substantially burdening an inmate’s religious exercise unless the prison is furthering a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means of doing so.
More than forty states, as well as the federal prison system, allow beards of the length that inmate Holt requested. Yet the defendant Arkansas prison system advanced two justifications for its denial of the beard: First, Arkansas argued, prisoners could hide contraband even in short beards. Second, according to Arkansas, allowing prisoners to have facial hair could make it difficult to identify inmates within the prison.
Justices who often hold diametrically opposing views on church-state and other hot-button issues were united in being deeply skeptical of these assertions.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel A. Alito noted that it would be much easier to hide objects in a head of hair, pointing out that Arkansas prisons allow inmates to have voluminous locks. Justice Alito also pointed out that even if it were possible to hide contraband in a half-inch beard, prison guards could easily expose such contraband by simply making the inmates comb their beards so that anything hidden falls out.