New Supreme Court Issue: Can Prisons Bar Muslims From Growing Beards?


On Oct. 7, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether prison officials may prohibit Muslim inmates from growing the beards required by their faiths, says the New York Times. On the last day of their last term, the justices ruled that some corporations could refuse to provide contraception coverage to their workers on religious grounds. The juxtaposition of the two cases may color the justices' analysis in the second one, said Cardozo Law School Prof. Marci Hamilton. “After going out on a limb by providing newfound rights to corporations,” she said, “are they now going to turn around and say that prisoners can't grow beards?”

The justices will apply a familiar legal test to decide the case: whether the challenged government regulation placed a substantial burden on religious practices. If it did, the government must show that it had a compelling reason for the regulation and no better way to achieve it. The case was brought by Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt, serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, sought to grow a half-inch beard. More than 40 state prison systems allow such beards, which are shorter than a dime. Most allow longer ones. The exceptions, according to a brief from Holt, are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. Arkansas prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems. Other kinds of beards are banned.

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