U.S. justices scratch chins over prison beard lengths

Tue Oct 7, 2014 1:47pm EDT
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By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices, hearing an important religious rights case on Tuesday, expressed doubt over whether the state of Arkansas can justify preventing a Muslim inmate from having a beard.

The court appears likely to grant convicted burglar Gregory Holt's request to have a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. But the justices seemed unsure where to draw the line over whether prison officials could have valid reasons for banning longer beards, which could lead to a narrow ruling.

Holt says the state's prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a "neatly trimmed mustache" violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Holt's lawyers note that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.

For the prison regulation to be deemed lawful, the court must find that the government had a good reason to impose on an inmate's religious beliefs.

The state said the rule is necessary for security reasons, contending that bearded inmates could easily change their appearance by shaving their beards or could hide contraband in their beards.

Although they appeared sympathetic to the notion that beards could be a potential security risk, various justices cited apparent inconsistencies in Arkansas's arguments.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the prison had no policy restricting the length of other hair. If someone had long, thick hair growing from the top of the head, "it seems more could be hidden than in a beard," she said.   Continued...

A general view of the U.S. Supreme Court building at sunrise is seen in Washington October 5, 2014.    REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst