WASHINGTON (CN) - An Arkansas prison unfairly burdens a Muslim inmate's religious exercise by not letting him grow a short beard, the Supreme Court ruled Tuesday.
Gregory Houston Holt aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad brought the case to defend the beard he says he must grow as a Muslim fundamentalist. The grooming policy for the Arkansas Department of Corrections allows only trimmed moustaches or quarter-inch beards for a diagnosed dermatological problem.
Based on the other ways in which Arkansas lets Holt practice his religion, however, a federal judge in Pine Bluff dismissed the action.
The court heard evidence that Holt had a prayer rug and a list of distributors of Islamic material; that he was allowed to correspond with a religious adviser; and that he was allowed to maintain the required diet and observe religious holidays.
A three-judge panel of the 8th Circuit affirmed dismissal in 2013, but the Supreme Court reversed unanimously for Holt on Tuesday under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
"Although we do not question the importance of the department's interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner's beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband," Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the court. "And we conclude that the department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests."
The 16-page opinion notes doubt about the policy has dogged the case even in its earliest stages, when Holt wore a short beard to a hearing in the lower court because of an earlier injunction.
The federal magistrate presiding over that hearing vacated that injunction and dismissed Holt's case despite noting: "I look at your particular circumstance and I say, you know, it's almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard," according to the ruling.
Alito faulted the District Court for its misunderstanding of the analysis that RLUIPA demands.
Though the lower court had cited the alternative ways in which the state lets Holt practice his religion, "RLUIPA provides greater protection," according to the ruling.
"RLUIPA's 'substantial burden' inquiry asks whether the government has substantially burdened religious exercise (here, the growing of a 1/2-inch beard), not whether the RLUIPA claimant is able to engage in other forms of religious exercise," Alito added (parentheses in original).
The state is also not off the hook based on Holt's testimony that "his religion would "credit" him for attempting to follow his religious beliefs, even if that attempt proved
to be unsuccessful," according to the ruling.
Alito noted that RLUIPA applies to an exercise of religion regardless of whether it is "compelled."
It is also true that some Muslims do not believe that their religion requires all men to grow beards, but Alito said that RLUIPA protection, "no less than the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause, is 'not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.'"
Alito found it "hard to take seriously" that a ½-inch beard compromises security.
"Since the department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1/2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head," according to the ruling.
As for the purpose of readily identifying prisoners, Alito found this insufficient to save the policy.
"The department contends that a prisoner who has a beard when he is photographed for identification purposes might confuse guards by shaving his beard," he wrote. "But as petitioner has argued, the department could largely solve this problem by requiring that all inmates be photographed without beards when first admitted to the facility and, if necessary, periodically thereafter. Once that is done, an inmate like petitioner could be allowed to grow a short beard and could be photographed again when the beard reached the 1/2-inch limit. Prison guards would then have a bearded and clean-shaven photo to use in making identifications. In fact, the department (like many other states) already has a policy of photographing a prisoner both when he enters an institution and when his 'appearance changes at any time during
Arkansas prison records describe Holt, 38, as a Caucasian inmate at Varner Supermax.
He was sentenced to life in prison in 2010 for aggravated domestic burglary and first-degree domestic battering. The department describes Holt as a "habitual offender" with prior convictions for first-degree "terroristic threat" and filing a false report.
Justice Sonia Sotomayor joined a concurring opinion Tuesday by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and she wrote her own concurring opinion.