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High court to revisit issue of religious in prison beard case

  • Article by: Adam Liptak
  • New York Times
  • September 2, 2014 - 9:48 PM

– When the Supreme Court comes back in October, it will pick up where it left off, returning to the subject of religious freedom.

On the final day of the last term, in June, the justices ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that some corporations could refuse to provide contraception coverage to their workers on religious grounds.

The new case concerns prison rules prohibiting Muslim inmates from growing the beards required by their faiths.

As in the Hobby Lobby case, justices will consider whether the regulation placed a substantial burden on religious practices.

The case was brought by Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. He sought to grow a half-inch beard.

More than 40 state prison systems allow such beards. Most allow longer ones.

In Arkansas, prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems.

At a 2012 hearing in Holt’s case, prison officials testified that the strict policy was a result of security concerns.

Magistrate Judge Joe Volpe of U.S. District Court in Little Rock said he saw little reason to make Holt shave the short beard he wore in court.

“It’s almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard,” Volpe said. “But there’s a bigger picture here.”

Volpe ruled against Holt, saying that prison officials’ security assessments deserved deference. A district judge and an appeals court agreed.

© 2014 Star Tribune