When it ruled this year that Hobby Lobby, a for-profit corporation, had a religious right to refuse to include contraception in its employee health insurance plans, the Supreme Court pushed an important principle to unreasonable extremes. But the principle itself — that government should accommodate people’s religious convictions when it can do so — makes sense and has been supported by both Democrats and Republicans in Congress.
On Tuesday, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who wants to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons urged the court to overturn a state prison ban on beards that — as oral arguments in the case demonstrated — has no compelling justification. The justices should grant his request and overturn a federal appeals court decision that had rejected the prisoner’s request.
Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, sued the Arkansas Department of Correction under a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. That 2000 law prohibits prison regulations that impose a “substantial burden” on the exercise of religion unless the authorities show that a regulation serves a “compelling government interest” and is the least restrictive way for the government to further that interest.
That legal standard is similar to the one in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which the court applied in the Hobby Lobby case. But in that ruling the court was wrong to conclude that the contraceptive mandate imposed a substantial burden on the religious practices of the company’s Christian owners. By contrast, the Arkansas prison system’s refusal to let Holt grow a beard directly affects his personal practice of his faith.
And although affording preventive healthcare to women clearly is a compelling interest, the reasons cited by Arkansas for prohibiting even a half-inch beard were underwhelming. The state cited two: the possibility that a bearded prisoner could disguise his appearance by shaving, and the danger that the beard could be used to hide weapons or contraband. Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. provoked laughter when he suggested that a comb could be used to see whether a half-inch beard concealed “a tiny revolver.”
Prisoners do not enjoy exactly the same rights as the population at large, and sometimes prison officials will have a compelling reason to restrict inmates’ religious practices (including, perhaps, a long beard). But that isn’t this case. Holt’s desire to grow a short beard is precisely the sort of religious practice Congress wanted to accommodate. The court should enforce the law.
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