US top court rules for Muslim inmate over prison beard policy

Gregory Holt had wanted to grow a half-inch beard in following his Muslim beliefs but was blocked by the state regulation.

By (Reuters)

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Published: Wed 21 Jan 2015, 11:11 PM

Last updated: Thu 25 Jun 2015, 8:57 PM

An Arkansas inmate is permitted to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, the US Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a closely watched religious rights decision that threw out a state prison policy barring beards.

The justices, on a 9-0 vote in a case involving prison inmate Gregory Holt, rejected the state’s reasoning that the policy was needed for security reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing on behalf of the court, said the state already searches clothing and hair and had not given a valid reason why it could not also search beards.

Alito wrote that the prison’s “interest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard.”

Holt said the state’s prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a “neatly trimmed mustache” violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Holt’s lawyers noted that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.

Holt had wanted to grow a half-inch beard in following his Muslim beliefs but was blocked by the state regulation.

Holt is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights legal group that helped represent Holt, hailed the ruling.

“This is a huge win for religious freedom and for all Americans. More than 43 prison systems across the country allow prisoners to grow a half-inch beard, and at least 41 prison systems would allow an even longer beard,” Rassbach said.

“What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best,” Rassbach added.

The case is Holt v. Hobbs, US Supreme Court, 13-6827.



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