Freedom of religion is one of the hallowed tenets on which this country was founded. Which is why it should always come as a surprise to learn that the idea is threatened every day.
Such is the case with Arkansas prisoner Gregory Holt, who recently converted to Islam and wanted to grow a half-inch beard in accordance to his newfound faith. However, this was against the prison’s rules, claiming “that the beard, for instance, could be used to hide contraband.” After a lengthy religious rights case, justice was served.
On Tuesday, the Supreme Court unanimously voted in favor of Holt and of religious expression, ruling that he must be allowed to grow his beard.
Many proponents of religious and human rights lauded the decision. “The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today: government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices,” said Eric Rassbach of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Holt in his case.
According to NPR, “Federal law bars public institutions such as prisons from imposing a substantial and unjustified burden on the free exercise of religion.” And in Holt’s case, the Supreme Court ruled that it was unjustified.
Judge Samuel Alito said that the state’s justification was “hard to swallow,” emphasizing that the majority of prison systems -- both state and federal -- across the nation allow prisoners to grow beards. He also mentioned that Arkansas allows their prisoners more likely places to hide contraband, such as the hair grown on their head and the clothes they wear. “Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked,” he wrote in a statement.
“When so many prisons offer an accommodation,” the Supreme court said, “a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course.” And Arkansas did not do that.