Safety or restriction? Holt v. Hobbs brings religious freedoms to light

Flickr//William Warby

On Tuesday, Oct. 7, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case concerning the religious freedom rights of a Muslim prison inmate.

After ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby last summer the federal government could not force “closely held” corporations to pay for birth control against their religious beliefs, the Supreme Court now has another opportunity to rule in favor of religious freedom in Holt v. Hobbs.

Gregory Holt is a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who wants to grow a beard in compliance with his Muslim beliefs, but the prison where he resides forbids beards under its safety policy.

The prison officials argue that Holt’s beard could be used to hide contraband, but there is very little likelihood of this happening.

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, The same group that represented Hobby Lobby in its successful challenge of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) birth control mandate, and now represents Mr. Holt, 41 prison systems in the U.S. actually allow beards longer than the length to which Holt would like to grow his.

Additionally, a half-inch beard would not actually be a very good place to hide contraband such as a knife or a razor. The prison officials do not have substantial proof that the prisoners who have beards in other prison systems are using them to hide contraband, according to the Becket Fund.

Gregory Holt courtesy of Arkansas Department of Correction
Gregory Holt
courtesy of Arkansas Department of Correction

The officials cite the case of an inmate who committed suicide by using razor blades as evidence that beards could be used to hide contraband, but later had to retract that claim because the razor had been given to him by prison officials to shave his beard.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court must apply the test created by the “Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act” (RLUIPA), which states that the federal government can only burden the free exercise of religion in federal prisons if it is both works in favor of a governmental interest and restricted to the least amount possible.

RLUIPA passed by a voice vote in both the Senate and House by an even wider margin than its sister, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) –– the law under which the HHS mandate was challenged last summer. Both RLUIPA and RFRA were passed to help religious groups challenge laws that violate their religious beliefs.

Arkansas argues that the compelling government interest is in prisoner safety, but as explained above, there is very little proof that inmates who grow beards are using them to hide weapons of any kind. Additionally, as we all know from watching crime shows, there are plenty more discreet places for prisoners to hide weapons.

The prison officials also fail to meet the “least restrictive means” standard. Correctional officers can search prisoners’ beards (as odd as that picture may be) after the inmates meet with family, friends or an attorney, to ensure that they aren’t hiding anything in their beards.

The Supreme Court should strike down the prison policies that prevent people from growing beards (at least to a reasonable length that poses little chance of being used for smuggling or hiding weapons).

Certainly, this religious freedom case is different than ones we’ve seen before, where those with Christian beliefs face challenges to their faith. But it’s important for religious freedom to be applied to other religions as well, and not just Christianity. Holt’s beard in no way burdens other people, nor does it present a threat to the safety of other prisoners or correctional officers.

I see no reason why this federal prison policy should not be struck down and for Mr. Holt to get the freedom to grow his beard in line with his Muslim beliefs.

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