The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously struck down an Arkansas prison ban on inmate beards, a remarkable legal victory for a habitual offender turned devout Muslim who started off representing himself.
In an emphatic 9-0 decision, the court’s liberals and conservatives united in concluding that the prison’s grooming policy violated the religious rights of the prisoner known both as Gregory Holt and Abdul Maalik Muhammad. He’d challenged the Arkansas Department of Correction officials who’d denied his request to grow a half-inch beard.
“We do not question the importance of the department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote, but he added that “the department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests.”
Pointedly, Alito noted that “the vast majority of states and the federal government permit inmates to grow half-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious reasons.”
The court’s ruling was not unexpected, following a one-sided oral argument last October, and it was greeted warmly by various religious, as well as nonreligious, groups.
Attorney Richard Katskee, who filed a brief for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a nonpartisan group that advocates for church-state separation, said the ruling “reaffirmed that our constitutional commitment to religious freedom doesn’t stop at the prison gates.” It was a view echoed by the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and others.
“The ruling . . . firmly underscores that courts should not blindly defer when the government invokes ‘security’ as a reason to curtail rights,” said Jenifer Wicks , civil rights litigation director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Holt is a 39-year-old designated habitual offender, serving a life sentence at the state’s Varner Supermax prison. He’s previously pleaded guilty to threatening the daughters of former President George W. Bush. He was convicted of slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat and stabbing her in the chest, and he’s threatened to “wage jihad” against various individuals.
Holt, who’s Caucasian, took the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad during his conversion to Islam. Citing hadith, which are accounts of the statements made by the Prophet Muhammad, Holt said it was his religious obligation to grow a beard.
Holt took an uphill path to the Supreme Court, starting with a handwritten petition he filed in September 2013 on his own behalf, in which he noted that his case “has the potential to affect thousands of inmates.” Against all odds, the court plucked his challenge from among roughly 9,000 other petitions.
Myriad allies subsequently lined up in support of Holt, ranging from the Obama administration to a former warden at California’s San Quentin State Prison. During oral argument last October, Holt was represented by University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock, a prominent advocate in religious liberty cases.
Holt challenged the no-beard rule under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The law says the government cannot impose a “substantial burden on the religious exercise” of an inmate unless it is the “least restrictive means” of meeting a “compelling government interest.”
A key question was how much deference should be granted to prison authorities in keeping facilities secure. Prisons, like the military, often command considerable deference from judges. Arkansas asserted, in part, that prisoners might hide weapons or other contraband in beards. The justices all but laughed the argument out of court.
“The argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously,” Alito wrote.
Alito added that the court was unpersuaded by claims that inmates might disguise themselves by growing and then shaving beards.
Eighteen states – including Kansas, Pennsylvania and South Carolina – supported Arkansas. Whatever their inmate-grooming policies may be, they echoed the Arkansas argument that courts should accept the states’ judgments about maintaining prison safety.
“In the end, it is not about security issues,” Holt wrote in his petition, “but rather about controlling inmates unnecessarily by interfering with their religious practices.”