Supreme Court Quashes Prison Beard Ban

Zachary Enos | January 22, 2015 | 3:24pm EST
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A picture of Gregory Holt, who filed a handwritten appeal to the Supreme Court. (AP Photo)

It is not often that the Supreme Court makes headlines for a unanimous ruling. We usually hear about it when they rule 5-4 on some controversial dispute. But last Tuesday, all 9 justices joined together and ruled in unison on a major issue. What was that issue? It was religious freedom for prison inmates.

Over the years, prison officials have destroyed religious materials, banned prayer groups, denied access to religious diets and restricted some prisoners’ ability to worship. To end those abuses, an overwhelmingly bi-partisan Congress passed—and President Clinton signed—the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

For many, finding faith in prison brings real hope and lasting rehabilitation. Chuck Colson, Founder of Prison Fellowship, said much the same during his testimony to the Congressional Subcommittee that led to RLUIPA’s passage: “The irony of restricting [religious freedom] in prisons is particularly painful, because we know from 20 years of work that religion, faith, is the one thing that will turn the lives of these prisoners around.” Congress passed RLUIPA to push back against rampant faith-based discrimination and give every prisoner the chance to find hope in faith.

The opinion in Holt v. Hobbs, authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr., points out that RLUIPA was designed to “provide very broad protection for religious liberty.” Just as the Constitution prevents dehumanizing forms of cruel and unusual punishment, RLUIPA prevents stubborn bureaucrats from stripping inmates of human dignity by denying them the ability to seek God.

Unfortunately, many prison systems—like Arkansas—still try to get around RLUIPA, so the Supreme Court stepped in to stop them.

In this case, Arkansas prison officials refused to allow Gregory Holt, the inmate represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. The Court’s 9-0 decision in favor of Holt protects people of all faiths by stopping government officials from using their “mere say-so” to arbitrarily restrict religious liberty.

The Court expressly rejected Arkansas’s main defense—security concerns—by making one simple request: please demonstrate that a half-inch beard poses a credible threat. Arkansas prison officials couldn’t do it. They were unable to link Mr. Holt’s beard to any meaningful security threats. Instead, they asked the Court to just trust them. Unfortunately, blind trust makes it easy for bureaucrats to get around the law and restrict religious freedom.

While Justice Alito made clear that security concerns are legitimate, those concerns must be reasonably justified. No court is required to blindly defer to every prison warden’s “mere say-so.” On the contrary, RLUIPA requires courts to carefully scrutinize regulations that burden religious belief.

Not only did Arkansas’s beard ban hinder Mr. Holt’s peaceful expression of faith, it did so for reasons the Court found “hard to swallow.” In fact, the closer the Court looked, the less credible Arkansas’s “say-so” became. At the time of the opinion, over 43 state, federal and local prison systems allowed beards. Even Arkansas allowed quarter-inch beards for medical reasons. Arkansas couldn’t come up with a single credible reason why half-inch beards were uniquely dangerous in Arkansas.

Alito, writing on behalf of the Court, said that Arkansas’s position was nothing more than the “classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.”

The Court’s opinion reaffirms that we live in a country where bureaucratic whims cannot trump the government’s obligation to respect the dignity of every person. Perhaps that’s why groups as diverse as Justice Fellowship, the ACLU, the United Conference of Catholic Bishops and even the federal government stood up for Holt’s religious liberty. Religious freedom, rightly understood, has the power to unite every part of the political spectrum. In the face of hostile partisanship, that unity is something every freedom-loving American should celebrate.

Ultimately, the Court’s decision safeguards a fundamental American principle: that every person—even those who’ve disobeyed our laws—deserve to be treated with dignity. Prisoners rightly give up many of their physical freedoms upon conviction, but no government official is authorized to treat inmates as less than human. The government cannot be allowed to undermine any person’s religious freedom merely because they say so.

Zachary Enos is Assistant Director of Communications for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.

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