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SCOTUS: Prison’s prohibition on growing a beard violates inmate’s religious rights

Holt v. Hobbs, USSC No. 13-6827, 2015 WL 232143 (January 20, 2015); reversing 509 Fed. Appx. 561 (8th Cir. 2013); Scotusblog page

An Arkansas prison regulation bans inmates from having beards except when they have a medical need based on a diagnosed dermatological condition (in which case they can grow a 1/4-inch beard). Citing this regulation, prison officials barred Holt (a.k.a. Abdul Maalik Muhammad) from growing a 1/2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. The Supreme Court holds that as applied in this case, the regulation violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1.

Holt proved (and the prison didn’t dispute) that the grooming policy substantially burdened his exercise of a sincerely held religious belief, so the burden shifted to the prison authorities to show that their refusal to allow him to grow a half-inch beard furthered a compelling governmental interest and was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, § 2000cc–1(a). (Slip op. at 6-8). The authorities claim the beard ban advances the interest of prison safety and security by (and we are not making this up) preventing prisoners from hiding contraband. The Court isn’t persuaded:

We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1/2-inch beard is hard to take seriously. … An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1/2-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1/2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head. (Slip op. at 9-10).

Morever, there’s no reason this security concern can’t be addressed by searching the beard: “The Department already searches prisoners’ hair and clothing, and it presumably examines the 1/4 inch beards of inmates with dermatological conditions. It has offered no sound reason why hair, clothing, and 1/4-inch beards can be searched but 1/2-inch beards cannot.” (Slip op. at 11).

The prison also claims the policy prevents inmates from disguising their identities, but the Court finds this rationale wanting, too, given that this problem could be solved by before and after photographs that show the inmate clean-shaven and with a beard. “In fact, the Department … already has a policy of photographing a prisoner both when he enters an institution and when his ‘appearance changes at any time during [his] incarceration.’” … (Slip op. at 12). Nor have the prison authorities established why the risk that a prisoner will shave a 1/2-inch beard to disguise himself is so great that 1/2-inch beards cannot be allowed, even though prisoners are allowed to grow mustaches, head hair, or 1/4-inch beards for medical reasons. “All of these could also be shaved off at a moment’s notice, but the Department apparently does not think that this possibility raises a serious security concern.” (Slip op. at 13).

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