Early next month, the Supreme Court will hear the case of a Muslim inmate in Arkansas who is fighting prison officials to keep his beard, which he considers a religious requirement. In a handwritten petition he submitted to the Court last September, the inmate, Gregory Holt, argued that the Arkansas prison administration’s facial-hair policy is an infringement of his right to practice his religion freely.
Although Holt’s case is the first of its kind to reach the Supreme Court, restrictions on clothing and personal grooming in prison have been challenged before. American inmates of various faiths have pushed back against the limitations, but challenges to personal grooming and dress regulations have “rarely been successful,” according to a fact sheet from the American Civil Liberties Union.
This year, a Jewish man incarcerated in Wyoming was barred from wearing a yarmulke except when in his cell or at a religious function. When his request for an exception was denied, the ACLU sent the Wyoming Department of Corrections a letter supporting him. The state said only that it was reviewing its policies. In 2011, a Muslim woman who was not allowed to wear a religious headscarf while incarcerated sued the county where she was held. She won her case last year, and the county was forced to adjust its policy to allow inmates to wear some religious attire. Earlier legal cases brought forward by Muslim, Jewish, and Rastafarian prisoners who were forced to cut their hair or beards made little headway.
There are two main federal laws that protect the religious rights of prisoners. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 affects federal prisons, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 affects state and local prisons. These laws generally balance an inmate’s right to religious freedom with the government’s interest in keeping prisons and prisoners safe, and leave prison systems with some amount of leeway in applying policy.
Holt’s case is drawing attention for more than just its arrival at the country’s highest Court. “Arkansas is staking out an extreme position—refusing to allow Mr. Holt to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons, which would be permitted in the large majority of US prison systems,” says David Fathi, director of the ACLU’s project on US prisons.
This case is particularly important, Fathi told National Journal, because Arkansas prison officials are seeking to “deny a religious accommodation just based on their say-so” rather than presenting “evidence that the requested accommodation would create prison security or management problems.” If Holt were to lose the case, it would set a precedent that could allow prison systems to ban religious attire or grooming choices without explaining why.
Inmates in Arkansas state prisons must remain clean-shaven or maintain a “neatly trimmed” mustache. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, wanted to grow a half-inch beard in order to adhere to his faith. But Arkansas prisons allow beards only for inmates with skin problems, and even then, they require that beards be kept to a quarter-inch in length.
Arkansas prison officials argue that facial hair presents a real security risk in a prison setting. In a 2012 hearing about Holt’s case, officials said that inmates’ beards can be used to hide and smuggle illegal items like razor blades, drugs, and even SIM cards for mobile phones. But the officials also acknowledged that prisoners can hide such items in places other than in their facial hair.
In an amicus brief submitted to the Supreme Court, the ACLU argues that accommodating inmates’ religious practices and creating a fair prison environment are actually beneficial to a prison facility’s security.
Holt’s case comes after the Supreme Court in June ruled in favor of Hobby Lobby, a chain of arts and crafts retailers, in a decision that gave some companies an exemption from Obamacare’s contraception insurance mandate. Holt will be represented by the same group that represented Hobby Lobby in the June case, but the “highly specialized” context of inmates’ rights sets Holt’s case apart from the Hobby Lobby case, as Ira Lupu, a professor of law at George Washington University, told The New York Times.