Civil Liberties

Beard Ban Cut

Religious freedom win


In January, the U.S. Supreme Court struck a unanimous blow for religious liberty when it overturned an Arkansas Department of Corrections policy that prevented a Muslim inmate from growing a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious views. Per Justice Samuel Alito's majority opinion in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison's no-beard rule imposed a substantial burden on the prisoner's religious freedom. To pass muster, the policy needed to offer "the least restrictive means" of advancing the prison's legitimate interests in safety and order.

"An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1/2-inch beard," Alito observed. "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, during which he asked the prison'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." The lawyer's response to that question effectively doomed the prison's case. "I suppose that's a possible alternative," he conceded.