Prisoners have the right to grow beards for religious reasons, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Tuesday morning in the case of Muslim Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt. Arkansas officials had argued Holt’s half-inch beard presented a security risk, while Holt’s representatives said a 2000 law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act protected his right to grow it. From USA Today:
The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state's no-beard policy.
"We readily agree that (the state) has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities," Alito said. "But the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously."
Widespread skepticism toward the state’s security-driven argument was obvious in October when justices heard oral arguments in the case, SCOTUSblog wrote at the time.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in a concurrence joined by Sonia Sotomayor, noted that she believes the religious freedom extended to Holt is of a different character than that extended to the Hobby Lobby store chain in a much more controversial 2014 court ruling. That ruling held that Hobby Lobby could cite religious beliefs in choosing not to provide contraceptives through its employee health insurance plan. Wrote Ginsburg, who dissented in the Hobby Lobby case: “Unlike the exemption this court approved (in Hobby Lobby), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief.”