WASHINGTON (CNS) – The Supreme Court Jan. 20 ruled unanimously that the Arkansas prison system may not prohibit an inmate from growing a half-inch beard as a part of what he considers his religious obligation as a Muslim.
In the beard case, Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, sued the Arkansas Department of Corrections for permission to grow a half-inch beard, which is prohibited under the agency’s regulations. Holt/Muhammad believes he is called to wear an untrimmed beard, but agreed to wear only a short one.
The case drew attention when it was granted last year because the prisoner acted without an attorney, writing up his own petition by hand. He has been represented by lawyers since the case was granted.
Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a 2000 law intended to limit how much a government can restrict religious activities.
Alito said the regulation fails to use the least restrictive means of furthering its interests in controlling inmate behavior. Prison administrators argued that the ban on nearly all beards was to prevent inmates from hiding contraband and to limit the possibility of someone changing his appearance dramatically to reach an off-limits area of the prison or in case of an escape.
Prisoners were allowed to grow shorter beards in the case of someone with a skin condition, but there also was not a similar requirement that inmates’ hair or mustaches be kept short, Alito observed. The court also noted that other states allow longer beards without any history of contraband being hidden in them.
Alito took the lower courts to task for interpreting the inmate’s religious beliefs, such as by arguing that not all Muslims wear beards so he didn’t need to have one.