Supreme Court

Supreme Court Rules for Muslim Inmate, Says Prison Ban on Beards Violates Religious Freedom


Courtesy of U.S. Supreme Court

In a 9-0 decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a prison policy formulated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections which prevented a Muslim inmate from growing a 1/2-inch beard in accordance with his religious views. According to Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison's no-beard rule ran afoul of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which says that "no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise" of prisoners residing in institutions that receive federal funding, unless the government can demonstrate that the burden furthers "a compelling government interest" and "is the least restrictive means" of furthering that interest. As Alito explained for the unanimous Court, the Arkansas Department of Corrections plainly flunked that federal test.

"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," Alito observed. "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."

Alito made a similar point about contraband during the October 2014 oral argument in the case, where he asked the state's 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."

"I suppose that's a possible alternative," the lawyer was forced to concede, thereby dooming the prison's case.

The Supreme Court's opinion in Holt v. Hobbs is available here.


NEXT: Holt v. Hobbs: Unanimous victory for Muslim prisoner in religious rights case

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  1. The Christian Right is taking over – demanding to be exempt from laws everyone else has to obey!

    The next thing you know, Quakers will want to be exempt from military service!

    Dogs and cats living together…total chaos!

    1. Dogs and cats living together?
      Aren’t you against that?

      1. Only if it’s a male dog and male cat or something.

      2. I just realized we never had a wedding for the dog and the cat. They’ve been living in sin all this time.

    2. The Christian Right is taking over – demanding to be exempt from laws everyone else has to obey!

      That is a terrible thing. If anyone is allowed a beard, then everyone should be.

      I wonder what they will do with people who belong to sects that require the beard to be untrimmed?

  2. Wasn’t this the case that the lefty Supreme Court pundits told us was going to prove the conservative justices to be hypocrites who wouldn’t consistently defend religious freedom when the plaintiff was a Muslim? Think any of them will acknowledge they were wrong?

  3. Tiny American flags revolvers for everyone!

  4. I don’t know how to feel about this. Free exercise of religion is rubbish, but I don’t want to seem Islamophobic and thus racist.

    1. Free exercise of religion is rubbish?

      1. That’s what statists, especially (but not only) progressive statists, have been telling me at least since Employment Division v. Smith.

  5. …the lawyer was forced to concede…

    Concede nothing, not even if it makes sense. The correct answer would have been, “Justice Alito, our budget is so thin that the Arkansas penal system just can’t afford to provide the sort of combs that would be effective in searching out contraband in a way to ensure the safety of our guards and inmates.”

    1. “Well if your budget is so thin it can’t afford $0.10 combs, I shudder to think what you use to shave inmates with.”

  6. “In a 9-0 decision issued today, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a prison policy formulated by the Arkansas Department of Corrections which prevented a Muslim inmate from growing a 1/2-inch beard in accordance with his religious views.”

    What. What on Earth do they think a half-inch beard is going to do?

    What, is he going to hide a very tiny shiv in there? Does he plan on stabbing someone to death with a toothpick?

    1. It’s not about the beard, it’s about the control.

      1. Exactly.

      2. They’re in prison – one of the few places where that makes sense. I say shave ’em all head to toe.

        1. Well, I’ve been told over and over again that religious objections are in a special class by themselves.

          1. Seems that way doesn’t it. Of course some religions are more special than others.

            1. The town of Rotherham agrees.

              1. Bam. Totally. Thanks for reminding people of that…

        2. Were that the rule, it likely would’ve survived a challenge. But the rule is so idiotic that it couldn’t even survive a common sense test, let alone strict scrutiny.

        3. That raises a good question. Prison is basically a place where you lose lots of constitutional rights. Why is it OK to take the others, but not religious freedom? Other first amendment rights are lost when you are in prison.

          Personally I think that people should be allowed to practice their religion in prison (within reason, there are probably good reasons not to allow Sikhs to carry their knife thingy, for example). But as always, I hate special exceptions. If religious freedom requires that some people be allowed to grow beards, then everyone must be allowed to grow a beard. Otherwise it is privilege, not liberty.

          1. I want to see a fourth amendment case brought against the practice of “cell shakedowns”.

            1. That is kind of silly.

  7. Next up – Amish prisoners:…..trial?lite

    1. They’re just living in an Amish Paradise.

  8. They made the right call on this one.

    “Yeah, liberals hate bullying alright but they’re not opposed to using it when they casually throw out words like bigot and racist,” Maher said.

    “It does cower people into avoiding this debate. And if you’re doing that, you don’t get to wear the “Je suis Charlie” button; the button you wear is ‘Je suis party of the problem.’ And that goes for everybody,” he added.

    Maher criticized Catholic League president Bill Donahue for blaming the publisher of Charlie Hebo for not understanding “the role he played in his tragic death. Maher says that’s essentially blaming a woman for rape because she was wearing clothes that were too provocative.

    Holy shit you could knock me over with a feather. I totally agree with something that Bill Maher said. Bring it home, Armageddon…

    1. My friend’s mother makes $61 an hour on the internet . She has been without a job for ten months but last month her pay was $15622 just working on the internet for a few hours.
      over here. ????????

  9. Next up: Rastafarians allowed to follow their religion even in prison.

    1. Then the guards will have to break of all those…mobs of…prisoners hanging around being mellow…

      Why would the guards oppose this, again?

  10. Wait is this about the Brazilian bush?

  11. Are Sikhs allowed to wear their turbans in jail? I assume the ritual knife deal is out.

    1. Aren’t Sikhs supposed to not cut their hair or beards too?

  12. As long as your beard exists for supernatural reasons, no one can tell you to shave it for any reason.

    1. No, actually, the Supreme Court did not say that.

      1. Well I don’t think they agreed he could grow a beard because he owns himself.

        1. No, but they agreed his freedom could be overriden if that’s the only way to meet legitimate security concerns, and I suppose (despite my Amish joke above) that a mountain-man beard, however religious in motive, would be too much of a security and disciplinary threat. The shortness of the guy’s beard was key to the court’s reasoning.

  13. So, is the no-beard rule gone then, or is there just a special exception now?

    1. Special exception. Based on a statute stating “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise” of prisoners.

      Grow a beard because you’re a lumbersexual? It gets shaved.

      Grow a beard because you’re an Islamist nutter? No problem! And there totally won’t be any “unintended consequences” of increasing your status and prestige in prison because you get special treatment, or of validating your loony religion because its respected by the prison.

      1. I don’t think the Court mentioned whether he was an Islamist, though he might be.

        Now, I don’t know much about the social hierarchy in prison, but if you gain extra status based on whether you can get the guards to respect your religious freedom, then I would be fairly disappointed in the prisoners’ overall intelligence level.

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