Inmate beard policy violates religious freedom rights

Inmates do have rights, you know. The public may not like this, but the Constitution does not have an inmate exemption. Muslims have rights, also. This case involves an inmate who wanted to wear his beard in jail because his religion requires it. The Supreme Court (including all the conservatives) agrees with him.

The case is Holt v. Hobbs, decided on January 20. The prison grooming policy says you cannot wear a beard. There are no religious exemptions, which meant that plaintiff had to violate his religious principles. Prison officials testified that even a half-inch beard could hide contraband. The Supreme Court's not buying it. The inmate wins.

After the Supreme Court in 1990 made it much harder to win religious freedom cases, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). This may shock you, but Congress specifically intended that the law protect inmates. Under RLUIPA, a law or regulation violates religious freedom if it substantially burdens a religious practice without a compelling government interest. (This is the law, by the way, that allowed Hobby Lobby to deny its employee certain birth control coverage).

There is no real dispute that the no-beard policy substantially interferes with plaintiff's religious principles. The question is whether the jail can justify the policy. It cannot. In this regard, the Supreme Court notes that RLUIPA grants more religious freedom rights than the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause, which considers whether the plaintiff has an alternative way to practice his religious. RLUIPA contains no such provision.

While the government says the no-beard policy is necessary to prevent inmates from hiding contraband, Justice Alito says that "the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously." "An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a half-inch beard, and a prison seeking to hid an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out." Under RLUIPA, the government has to prove and not merely explain why the restriction is necessary. While courts like to defer to the judgments of prison officials, "it is hard to swallow the argument that denying petitioner a half-inch beard actually furthers the Department's interest in rooting out contraband."

The government also claims it needs the no-beard policy to prevent inmates from changing their appearance and disguising their identities to enter restricted areas in the prison and escape detection if they escape prison altogether. But, the Court says, the prison can take pictures of the inmates with and without their beards. Problem solved.