OCT 10, 2014, 10:00 AM
Beards, the Supreme Court, and religious expression for inmates
Justices of the United States Supreme Court three days ago strongly questioned oral arguments from Arkansas Department of Corrections defending their “no beard” policy for inmates, even when beards are worn for bona fide religious reasons.
The policy is being challenged by a Muslim convert named Gregory Holt, who holds that Arkansas is in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which is a federal law that says government cannot impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of prisoners unless it demonstrates that it has a compelling interest.
Some Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and others view shaving the beard as tantamount to committing sin. RLUIPA gives legal protection that despite even when people are incarcerated for felonies, the state does not have the absolute right to strip them of their religious practices and expressions. Even prisoners of war are guaranteed freedom of religious practice under the Geneva Convention.
Arkansas claims that beards should not be allowed in correctional facilities because they can be used to hide contraband such as weapons. Chief Justice John Roberts stated that Arkansas provided no proof of such ever happening, and Justice Sam Alito went farther by sarcastically suggesting to Arkansas that a “tiny revolver” could fall out of an inmate’s beard. Keep in mind that Roberts and Alito are both conservative jurists on the high court.
Just as in the Hobby Lobby case, in which the court ruled that two non-profit organizations did not have to provide full range contraceptive coverage for religious reasons to employees per the Affordable Care Act, I’m sure that the justices will rule in favor of beards for inmates.
At the end of the day, government has no right in meddling in the affairs of people’s bona fide religious beliefs as long as those beliefs do not pose a reasonable threat to security and justice in our land.