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High court likely to allow Muslim inmate’s beard

October 7, 2014

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Supreme Court appeared likely Tuesday to side with a prison inmate who says his Muslim beliefs require him to grow a half-inch (12 millimeter) beard.

The justices took up their first religious liberty case since the Hobby Lobby case bitterly divided them in June over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women’s contraceptives under the health care overhaul.

There was no such division evident in the courtroom Tuesday as several justices were openly skeptical of arguments made by a lawyer for Arkansas in defense of a policy that allows mustaches for all inmates and a few days’ growth for prisoners with skin conditions, but no beards.

The no-beard policy has no religious exception, the state of Arkansas’ Deputy Attorney General David Curran said, because prisoners can hide items in beards and change their appearance by shaving.

Justice Samuel Alito suggested a simple solution to the concealment issue: Give the inmate a comb and instruct him to comb the beards. “If there’s a SIM card in there, a revolver...comb it and it will fall out,” Alito said to laughter.

Curran agreed. “That sounds like something that could be done,” he said.

Thirty-nine-year-old Gregory Holt claims a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners’ religious rights.

The Obama administration, religious groups and atheists alike are supporting Holt, who is serving a life sentence for a brutal assault on his girlfriend. More than 40 states allow inmates to keep beards.

Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, lives at a maximum security prison southeast of Little Rock. His case first came to the court’s attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas’ no-beard rule.

Holt argued in court papers that his obligation to grow a beard comes from hadiths, accounts of the acts or statements of the Prophet Muhammad. In one statement attributed to the prophet, Muslims are commanded to “cut the mustaches short and leave the beard.”

Holt said he understands that statement to mean he should grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch beard as a compromise because California allows Muslim inmates to wear beards of that length.

A decision is expected by late spring.

Update hourly