Supreme Court rules Muslim prisoner in Arkansas can keep beard
Bearded Muslim man (Shutterstock)

An Arkansas inmate is permitted to grow a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday in a closely watched religious rights decision that threw out a state prison policy barring beards.

The justices, on a 9-0 vote in a case involving prison inmate Gregory Holt, rejected the state's reasoning that the policy was needed for security reasons.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing on behalf of the court, said the state already searches clothing and hair and had not given a valid reason why it could not also search beards.

Alito wrote that the prison's "interest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard."

Holt said the state's prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a "neatly trimmed mustache" violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Holt's lawyers noted that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.

Holt had wanted to grow a half-inch beard in following his Muslim beliefs but was blocked by the state regulation.

Holt is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.

Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights legal group that helped represent Holt, hailed the ruling.

"What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best," Rassbach added.

"This is a huge win for religious freedom and for all Americans. More than 43 prison systems across the country allow prisoners to grow a half-inch beard, and at least 41 prison systems would allow an even longer beard," Rassbach said.

Eighteen states had backed Arkansas, arguing that the court should defer to the judgment of prison officials.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a pointed concurring opinion that recalled the court’s bitterly divided 2014 decision allowing for-profit companies to deny employees contraceptive insurance coverage based on company owners’ religious beliefs.

“Unlike the exemption this court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores,” Ginsburg said, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “accommodating (Holt’s) religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share (his) belief.”

The Arkansas attorney general’s office was reviewing the decision and expects to comment later on Tuesday, a spokesman said.

The case is Holt v. Hobbs, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-6827.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic in Washington and Steve Barnes in Little Rock; Editing by Will Dunham)