The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on Tuesday in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, which asks whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated a federal religious liberty law by preventing a Muslim prisoner from growing a one-half inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Judging by the oral argument, it appears the prisoner stands a good chance of winning.
"You have no comparable rule about hair on one's head," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg told Arkansas Deputy Solicitor General David Curran, "where it seems more could be hidden than in the beard." How does a ban on beards make sense from a security point of view when there's no ban on long hair?
Justice Stephen Breyer soon raised another objection. "I take it there's no example, not a single example in any State that allows [prisoner beards]," he said, "where somebody did hide something in his beard."
"I think that's mostly right, Your Honor," Curran was forced to concede.
But perhaps the biggest critic of the state's prison policy was Justice Samuel Alito, who asked the state lawyer, "why can't the prison just give the inmate a comb…and say comb your beard, and if there's anything in there, if there's a SIM card in there…a tiny revolver, it'll fall out."
Against the backdrop of laughter in the courtroom, inspired perhaps by Alito's reference to a revolver hidden in a one-half inch beard, the state lawyer was once again forced to acknowledge the weakness of his position. "I suppose that's a possible alternative," he told Alito.
A ruling in Holt v. Hobbs is expected by June 2015.