The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments today in a major test of religious freedom. At issue is a 2000 federal law to shore up the religious rights of prisoners. What makes the case unusual, NPR reports, is that it was brought by a prisoner, with no help from lawyers. In a 15-page handwritten legal petition, Gregory Holt asked the Supreme Court to review a decision by Arkansas prison authorities denying him permission to wear a half-inch beard. He lost in the lower courts, though a federal magistrate called it “almost preposterous” to think that anyone could hide something in a half-inch beard.
Against all odds, the Supreme Court agreed to hear Holt’s appeal, and he is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and a leading authority on religious rights, University of Virginia law Prof. Douglas Laycock. Normally, prisoners give up many of their rights. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) bars prison officials from imposing a “substantial and unjustified burden” on the religious exercise of inmates. This is the first time the court will tackle the question of how to balance the religious rights of prisoners and still defer to officials seeking to keep prisons safe.