The Case of the Muslim Inmate’s Beard

The Supreme Court will decide if an Arkansas inmate can grow a half-inch beard in observance of his faith.

WASHINGTON — It’s not every day that a coalition of legal minds is rooting for a violent inmate convicted of stabbing his girlfriend in the neck.

When Gregory Holt’s case arrives at the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday (October 7), lawyers won’t be arguing about what landed him a life sentence in an Arkansas state prison, but rather what he wanted to do once he got there: grow a beard in observance of his Muslim religious beliefs.

The state of Arkansas says he can’t. Holt — a convert to Islam who now calls himself Abdul Maalik Muhammad — says he would keep his beard no longer than half an inch. But prison officials, backed by the state’s attorney general, argue that even such a short beard poses security risks.

“When it comes to making prison policies, the stakes are high; lives can be lost if the wrong decision is made,” according to the state’s legal brief, which describes Holt as a violent self-declared fundamentalist. “The ADC takes religious freedom seriously, but it takes seriously its paramount interests in safety and security, too.”

The St. Louis-based 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Ray Hobbs, the director of the Arkansas Department of Correction. But it’s hard to find too many others who think that the prison’s case for security trumps Holt’s right to exercise his religion.

Among those who filed legal briefs supporting Holt: Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention and the American Jewish Committee. The attorneys at the conservative Becket Fund for Religious Liberty who are preparing Holt’s case also represented Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. last year in the evangelical-owned company’s successful suit against the Obamacare contraception mandate.

“Last year we found out that companies have religious freedom rights,” said Ayesha N. Khan, legal director of Americans United, referring to Hobby Lobby’s win at the Supreme Court. “This year we’re going to find out if individuals do too.”

In some ways, the Hobby Lobby case and Holt’s are similar: They both turn on federal laws that require the government to do more than show that the policy in question — in Holt’s case, a beard ban — makes sense. When imposing a “substantial” burden on an individual’s religious observance, federal law says the government must prove a “compelling” government interest and that it employs the “least restrictive” way of achieving its goals.

Holt v. Hobbs is “not really about Muslims or the practice of having a beard,” said Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund. The case, he said, will help define the extent to which the nation values religious rights.

“The degree of religious liberty we give to people who are not powerful in society says a lot more about us than it does about them,” Rassbach said. “We don’t want to be treating people like animals because they committed a crime.”

Also on the prisoner’s side: the federal government. Solicitor General Donald Verrilli’s brief on the case notes that Holt’s prison allows inmates to grow the hair on top of their heads longer than a half inch as long as it does not reach the nape of their necks.

On the other side of the case, Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel argues that prison officials — and not courts — have wide latitude in determining security risks among the incarcerated.

The state’s legal brief rests in great part on the objections of prison officials concerned that a bearded prisoner could hide weapons, drugs or even cellphone SIM cards in his facial hair.

But they had other concerns. Escaped prisoners can quickly shave to make themselves harder to catch. The prison doesn’t have the resources to regularly check beard lengths or to protect guards from inmates who do not appreciate having their beards scrutinized for contraband. And any policy that seems to privilege one prisoner over another can foment unrest among inmates.

Holt, the brief also states, has put a knife to the neck of a fellow prisoner in a religious dispute. He has repeatedly stated his intention to harm public officials and pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap and harm the daughters of former President George W. Bush. He has declared himself  “at war” with the prison barber and has threatened to hurt him. Still, Holt — who adheres to Salafism, a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia — has been given many opportunities for religious observance.

“He is able to acknowledge his religion in a variety of other ways without wearing a beard, such as the use of a prayer rug during his worship times, reading and studying the Koran, communicating with a religious advisor, maintaining the required diet, and observing religious holidays,” the brief states.

Arkansas officials also noted that some Muslim men do not wear beards.

As with most religions, adherents vary in their practice. And although there is nothing in the Quran that requires Muslim men to grow a beard, three of the four major schools of Sunni Islam consider it mandatory.

“While there are differing interpretations, for some Muslims it is a sincerely held religious belief based on the word and the example of the Prophet Muhammad,” said Saif Inam, a policy analyst at the Muslim Public Affairs Council. “Some people believe it is absolutely required.”

Holt will not be present when the Supreme Court hears his case on Tuesday. The justices are expected to issue their decision next spring.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.