If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime. How passe. via Prisoner’s beard offers Supreme Court a game of inches.
WASHINGTON — It was a game of inches at the Supreme Court Tuesday.
A day after disposing of their most controversial and consequential cases — those involving same-sex marriage — the justices turned to the question of whether Muslim prisoner Gregory Holt’s half-inch beard could threaten the security of the Arkansas prison system.
No, most of the justices appeared to conclude — but they worried that the next cases might involve longer beards or other religious demands, with no end in sight. At what point, several of them said, should a state’s security interests surmount a prisoner’s religious rights?
“Religious beliefs aren’t reasonable. I mean, religious beliefs are categorical,” Justice Antonin Scalia said. “God tells you.”
“What do we do, just litigate a dozen cases until we settle on one-and-three-quarters inches?” asked Chief Justice John Roberts.
The issue before the court was Arkansas’ requirement that prisoners be clean-shaven, unless they have a medical reason for keeping a quarter-inch beard. While more than 40 state prison systems allow beards in general, Holt had agreed to keep his to a half-inch — virtually negating the chance he could hide weapons or contraband in it, and making it harder for him to change his appearance by shaving.
A law passed by Congress in 2000 was intended to protect prisoners’ religious rights, much like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 was meant to protect religious freedom in general. That law was cited by the court in June when it allowed family-owned corporations with religious objections to be exempted from providing health insurance for contraceptives.
The justices appeared to agree that the law regarding prisoners does work in Holt’s favor. Several also belittled the state’s stated fears: that an escaped prisoner could hide a weapon or contraband in his beard, and change his appearance after an escape by shaving.
“Not one example has ever been found of anybody hiding anything in his beard,” said Stephen Breyer. And Justice Samuel Alito suggested that prison officials could just force inmates to comb through their beards. [CS: A comb is a deadly weapon in prison]
“Anything else you think can be hidden in a half-inch beard, a tiny revolver, it will fall out,” Alito said.
But Arkansas Deputy Attorney General David Curran noted that the state prison system houses inmates in barracks and employs them on maintenance jobs outside prison grounds, where they might engage in mischief.
“We’re not like California. We’re not like New York. They have cell-block housing,” Curran said. “A beard is one of the quickest and easiest ways to change one’s appearance.”
Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, convinced the court to hear his case with a 15-page, handwritten petition citing his desire to keep a beard as part of his Muslim faith. His grievance stems from the Arkansas Department of Corrections rule prohibiting beards unless medically required.
As we previously noted for readers:
This pious Muslim convert also threatened jihad on jurors, served prison time for threatening President George W. Bush’s daughters and wrote to jailers promising a deadly “jihad” inside the courtroom should “the verdict in my trial go south,” among other things.
“Holt also wrote how he wasn’t bound by American laws, but only recognized the Shariah law of Islam.”
Apparently Alito et al agree with him.
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