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Does the Constitution protect prisoners’ beards?

Religious Liberty

A Muslim prison inmate has found some unusual allies in Christians who are defending his right to grow a beard. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear the case of Gregory Holt, who is serving a life sentence in Arkansas for cutting and stabbing a woman. Along the way, he converted to Islam and started using the name Abdul Maalik Muhammad. Islam requires that he wear a beard, but prison policy mandates he stay clean-shaven for hygiene and safety.

The prisoner is defending his case using both the First Amendment’s religious freedom protections and a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That law bars government from imposing a land-use regulation that puts a substantial burden on religious exercise without showing a compelling reason and using the least restrictive means. The inmate in this case argues that the facial hair requirements of his faith are burdened substantially by a prison regulation. 

He wrote his plea, without the help of an attorney, to the Supreme Court in a handwritten, 15-page petition after the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the prison policy.  The petition went to Justice Samuel Alito, who blocked Arkansas from enforcing the beard policy until after the court hears the case next term.

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A number of groups from opposite sides of the religious freedom debate filed amici briefs last week supporting Holt’s argument. Groups such as Alliance Defending Freedom and Americans for Separation of Church and State agreed Holt should be able to grow a beard. 

Christian groups are watching this case because if the court rules against religious liberty within prisons, ministries such as Prison Fellowship, started by Chuck Colson, could be adversely affected. Those ministries cost the state nothing and have been shown in study after study to reduce criminal behavior.

This case also is important because it has the potential to clarify how the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act is enforced. Even though the law is pretty specific, it’s still not entirely clear. Cases like this one can become excruciatingly detailed. Here, the inmate offered to keep his beard to half an inch, instead of a full beard. But once his compromise is approved, the next inmate could claim a three-quarter-inch beard doesn’t make that much difference.

The court will face the challenge of deciding whether the government has a compelling interest in regulating religious prisoners’ beard length, and whether those regulations are the least restrictive way to enforce those interests.

Lynde Langdon contributed to this story.

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