The Supreme Court Is Going to Rule on This Man's Beard

The Supreme Court Is Going to Rule on This Man's Beard
Getty Images
Getty Images

What may sound like one of the silliest cases on the Supreme Court's docket this term is way more important than you might have thought. 

When the Supreme Court's new term opens Monday, the justices will hear a case that will decide whether a Muslim prison inmate can maintain a beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. In Holt v. Hobbs, inmate Gregory Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad) claims that the Arkansas Department of Corrections' grooming policy violates a 2000 federal law giving religious rights to prisoners. "Holt wants to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs," Reuters reports. "His lawyers note that 44 state prison systems and the federal government allow inmates to have similar beards." 

The state claims that inmate beards are a security risk. "Prisoners who grow them could quickly alter their appearance by shaving after an escape." according to NBC News. "State officials also contend that inmates hide contraband inside their cheeks." Holt, who is currently serving a life sentence for breaking into his ex-girlfriend's house and slitting her throat, initially got the court's attention with a handwritten plea in 2013. 

Why it matters: This is the first religious freedom case for the Supreme Court following last term's controversial Hobby Lobby ruling, which established that certain for-profit corporations can assert religious claims under another federal law. As Religion News Service points out, the attorneys at the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who represented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. are also preparing Holt's case. The groups that have filed briefs supporting Holt include Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Jewish Committee.

"Like Hobby Lobby, Holt is in the Supreme Court arguing that conduct by the government — in his case, a prison policy prohibiting him from growing a beard — violates a federal statute intended to protect religious rights," explains SCOTUSBlog reporter Amy Howe. "Having ruled that a corporation can rely on the devoutly Christian beliefs of its owners to avoid complying with the Affordable Care Act’s birth-control mandate, will at least five justices be equally receptive to an inmate’s desire to comply with his Muslim religion by growing a half-inch beard?"

Americans United legal director Ayesha N. Khan puts it more succinctly: "Last year we found out that companies have religious freedom rights ... This year we're going to find out if individuals do too."

Of course, there's a major difference between Hobby Lobby and Holt, mainly stemming from the fact that Gregory Holt is a prisoner. In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court was essentially enforcing 1993's Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from "substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," unless the government "demonstrates that application of burden to the person is in the furtherance of a compelling governmental interest." By contrast, Holt's challenge is to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which provides that "[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution," minus the regular "compelling government interest." 

Despite this, the fundamental question is the same: What exactly is a "compelling government interest" in Hobby Lobby and Holt? In some ways, Holt will prove a litmus test for the Supreme Court's definition of "religious freedom" and the government's ability to infringe on it.

The Supreme Court will hear arguments in Holt on Tuesday. Stay tuned.