Supreme Court Rules Correctional Institutions Must Allow Half Inch Beards for Religious Reasons

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religious beardThe Supreme Court’s opinion in Holt v. Hobbs communicated a rather pragmatic view of the prison security risks created by short beards – namely, that the beards aren’t much of a risk at all given that they are not an ideal place to hide contraband. (Getty Images)

To the casual Supreme Court watcher, Holt v. Hobbs will probably be known and remembered more for John Oliver’s brilliant rendition of the oral argument featuring dogs posed as Supreme Court Justices, rather than what the Court held. But for Gregory Holt and other inmates who have been not been allowed to grow half inch beards, it is the holding they will remember.

The Supreme Court held unanimously that an inmate’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Rights Act (RLUIPA) were violated when he was not allowed to grow a half inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Cities, take note – this case will affect correctional institutions with no-beard policies and may provide lower court’s guidance in evaluating RLUIPA claims in the corrections and land use context.

Arkansas Department of Corrections (the Department) grooming policy prohibits inmates who do not have a particular dermatological condition from growing beards. Gregory Holt’s request to grow a half inch beard in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs was denied.

RLUIPA states that the government may not substantially burden the free exercise of an institutionalized person unless the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling government interest. The Eighth Circuit held that the Department satisfied its burden of showing that the no beards policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling security interests.

The Court, in an opinion written by Justice Alito, first concluded the lower court made three errors in concluding that the grooming policy didn’t substantially burden Mr. Holt’s religion. That he had other means of practicing his religion, that he was “credited” by his religion for attempting to follow his beliefs, and that not all Muslims believe men must grow beards were all facts that do not matter in a RLUIPA analysis.

While the Court agreed that preventing the flow of contraband in it facilities and preventing prisoners from disguising their identities are compelling state interests, it concluded that disallowing half inch beards isn’t the least restrictive means of furthering prison safety and security. The Court described the Department’s concern that prisoners may hide contraband in their beards as “hard to take seriously.” Only small items could be concealed, inmates could more easily conceal items in head hair, and beards can be searched. Photographing an inmate with and without a beard would solve the problem of an inmate changing his appearance to enter restricted areas, escape, or evade apprehension upon escaping. And the fact that the Department allows inmates to grow mustaches, head hair, and quarter inch beards for medical reasons – all of which could be shaved off “at a moment’s notice” – indicates that security concerns raised by quickly changing appearance are not “serious.”

Also critical to the Court’s analysis was the fact that most states and the federal government allow inmates to grow half inch beards for any reason.

The Court’s opinion in this case was partially a critique of the lower court opinions, which seemed to gloss over the requirements of RLUIPA rather than carefully apply them, and partially a pragmatic view of security risks created by short beards: “Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a ½ inch beard—and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes. Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked.”

Lisa Soronen bio photoAbout the Author: Lisa Soronen is the Executive Director of the State and Local Legal Center and a regular contributor to CitiesSpeak.