Religious Free Exercise and the Beard

There are many different areas that the free exercise clause in the First Amendment has impacted, as evidenced by the breadth of various cases taken by the Supreme Court in the past few years.  At the heart of these cases would be the ongoing debate over the role of religion in society.  However, the vast majority of the cases surrounded Christian principles or beliefs, and this is not necessarily the religion at hand anymore.  With the growing paranoia of the Islamic faith, Islam has increasingly become a subject for Supreme Court cases.  The paranoia did not play as big of a role in the case I am going to discuss in this post, but the fact that it is Islam and not Christianity was significant to me. Nonetheless, the case of Holt v. Hobbs demonstrates the conflict between religion and the law, and another layer to this case is the fact that the applicant, Gregory Holt, was an inmate at a prison.

In short, Gregory Holt was being imprisoned in the state of Arkansas.  A major part of the Islamic religion, in many sects, is the ability to grow facial hair, and many keep large beards as a sign of their religious beliefs.  Holt holds this belief to vital to practicing his religion, but growing the beard did not comply with regulations of the Arkansas Department of Corrections.  Only those with documented skin problems would be allowed to grow facial hair, and it could only be a quarter of an inch in length.  When he was told that he could not grow his beard, Holt sued on the grounds that preventing him from growing facial hair violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which was incorporated through First Amendment rights of free exercise.  He also stated that he would limit his beard to half an inch in length.  His claim was rejected because it was deemed necessary to limit facial hair for security in the prison.  The ruling was upheld by the Circuit Court, and Holt petitioned the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In deciding this case, Justice Alito cited the precedent set in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, stating that an exception to the provisions in the prison’s regulations would be permissible in some cases with a religious belief that is vital to that person.  It also had to be determined whether or not preventing Holt from growing the beard would be done due to a compelling government interest, using the least restrictive means of doing so.  The Court found that growing the beard would be in line with the Hobby Lobby ruling, stating that it would be a reasonable accommodation to allow Holt to grow the beard.  Moreover, Alito wrote that these means of restricting religious exercise were not the least restrictive means to ensure security.  As a result, Holt won the case and was allowed to grow his beard.  This ruling was unanimous, with all nine justices siding with the majority.

I believe that this was the right decision in this case according to the precedent that the justices looked at in Hobby Lobby, although the value of that precedent is debatable because of the autonomy it grants to corporations in terms of religion.  Regardless, I do not see any reason why growing a beard would be contrary to maintaining security in prison, and there are plenty of other ways to secure that purpose.  Interestingly enough, the side of Islam won in this case, and this is a significant victory for a community that has come under scrutiny in this country lately.  It will be interesting to see how the Court moves forward on similar issues.

*All information for this case was taken from


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s