The United States Supreme Court ruled in a unanimous 9-0 decision in the Holt v. Hobbs case Jan. 20 that will allow Arkansas prisoner, Gregory H. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, to grow a one-half inch beard for religious purposes, which had previously not been allowed within the Arkansas state prison system.
In the United States, 43 states allowed prisoners to wear short beards. Florida is one of the states that does not allow beards and requires inmates to be clean-shaven.
Emily Hardman, a spokesperson for the Becket Fund, which is a non-profit religious liberty support group, said the ruling did not end all the restrictions on beards in prisons.
“The decision doesn’t automatically take care of the policies in other states,” Hardman said. “But it does set a very clear standard for what the government has to prove to restrict religious freedom. “
The Florida prison system was recently sued for denying an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate access to kosher food. Florida is the only major prison system in the United States that does not offer kosher food.
The United States Department of Justice filed a similar lawsuit and won. The State of Florida received a federal court order to provide kosher meals to all Jewish inmates, but it soon appealed Florida the court order.
Eric Rassbach, the counsel who represented Holt in court, thought this case was a stepping stone for other cases that will deal with state and religion.
“No religion is an island,” Rassbach said “This is not just a win for one prisoner in Arkansas, but a win for all Americans who value religious liberty.”
Arkansas allowed short beards for medical purposes but argued that allowing beards can pose a security risk. The Supreme Court countered, saying that an one-half inch beard posing a threat to security “was hard to take seriously”.
Rassbach argued that Arkansas’ prison system’s policy was a direct violation of a federal civil rights law titled the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act or RLUIPA.
“The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today,” Rassbach said. “Government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices. Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to. What’s more, the Court’s unanimous decision today, and the broad-based support among such diverse groups in this case, shows that religious liberty remains one of the central ideals of America that unifies us as a nation.”
Allezo N. Owens, a professor of religion at Florida A&M University, said it is important for people who are religious to express their faith.
“Even as inmates, it’s very important for people to have those kind of practices that affirm their belief and help them to affirm who they are within that religious system,” Owens said. “Given the decisions to allow the Muslim guy to grow a beard and to allow the Jewish guy to have his kosher food is coming down strongly on the side of the free expression of religion.”