Supreme Court Inmate Beard Case Illustrates True Purpose Of Federal Free Exercise Laws

  • October 13, 2014

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in a case (Holt v. Hobbs) brought by an observant Muslim inmate challenging an Arkansas Department of Corrections (“DOC”) policy barring beards worn for religious reasons.  ADL had joined a friend-of-the-court-brief filed by a coalition of religious organizations in support of the inmate.   Given the facts of the case, the questions and answers at oral argument, and the Court’s overly broad reading of a federal law similar to the one at issue in this case, there likely are five justices who will side with the inmate.


Forty state prison systems allow inmates to wear beards without limitation, and another three allow beards with some limitations.  But the DOC prohibits inmates from wearing half-inch beards for religious reasons.

The inmate – Gregory Holt – challenged the beard policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”).   It is sister legislation to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”), the law at issue in the troubling Hobby Lobby decision where the Court found that the Affordable Care Act’s contraception mandate “substantially” burdened the religious exercise of a for-profit corporation.  Both statutes apply strict scrutiny – the most robust constitutional standard – when neutral laws or government rules significantly burden religious exercise.

At the argument, DOC’s attorney justified the beard policy based on prisoner misidentification and hidden contraband concerns.  But he could not cite to an example of either.  The attorney also had difficulty explaining why the Court should give deference to the policy when inmates are permitted to have quarter-inch beards for medical reasons, wear their hair to the middle of the neck, and grow Afros without limitation, all of which arguably could pose the same concerns.

This case reflects the true purpose of both RLUIPA and RFRA: to shield religion from government burdens - not detrimentally imposing religious beliefs on others as was the case in Hobby Lobby.  Based on DOC’s failure to show a material effect on prison security, the Court should find in favor of Mr. Holt.  Allowing him to wear a short beard upholds his religious liberty without imposing his faith on or causing harm to others.