[JURIST] The US Supreme Court [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] unanimously Tuesday in Holt v. Hobbs [docket] that an Arkansas prison policy [inmate handbook] that bans Muslim prisoners from growing half-inch beards for religious beliefs is unconstitutional. The court held that prohibiting the growth of a religious beard violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) [42 USC § 2000cc et seq.]. According to the court, the growth of a short beard should not lead to a security risk and should not allow the prisoner a means of disguise.
Before the trial, prison policy only allowed facial hair in the form of “a neatly trimmed moustache that does not extend beyond the corners of the mouth or over the lip.” In oral arguments [JURIST report], the Arkansas Department of Correction [official website] contended that the grooming policy furthers the compelling government interests in prison safety and security. They also argued that prison administrators should be given deference, as the RLUIPA’s legislative history contemplates “due deference to the experience and expertise of prison and jail administrators.” Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik, argued [cert. petition, PDF] that the policy substantially burdened his exercise of religion. Holt also argued that even if prison administrators should be given due deference, they still must meet the burden of showing a compelling government interest.