On Tuesday, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous decision in Holt v. Hobbs, establishing that a Muslim inmate may grow a half-inch beard “in accordance with his religious beliefs,” despite a prison policy prohibiting him from doing so. This result is not particularly surprising. During oral argument the justices appeared sympathetic to the inmate, who listed as “Gregory Houston Holt AKA Abdul Maalik Muhammad.” And Mr. Muhammad had strong legal arguments supporting his case.
In the Court’s majority opinion, Justice Samuel Alito convincingly rebuts the prison’s justifications for requiring Muhammad to shave. Among other things, the prison claimed that an inmate might hide contraband, such as a razor or illegal drugs, in their beard if they were permitted to grow one. According to Alito, however, the prison’s claim that an inmate might smuggle items in a half-inch beard, is “hard to take seriously.” The prison, for example, does not require inmates to shave their heads, so “it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1/2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head.”
Though Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg joins Alito’s opinion, she also penned a two sentence concurring opinion explaining why Tuesday’s decision is a proper application of an individual’s religious freedoms — and why she believes that the Court’s birth control decision in Hobby Lobby was erroneous. “Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.,” Ginsburg explains, “accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.”
Prior to Hobby Lobby, the Court’s precedents honored a careful balance between religious liberty and the legal rights of others. People of faith have robust rights to honor their beliefs and act on their conscience, but they couldn’t interfere with someone else’s legal rights. Indeed, Hobby Lobby’s claim that they could defy a federal rule requiring them to include birth control in their employee health plan was especially weak because Hobby Lobby is a for-profit business. As the Court held in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.”
Unlike Hobby Lobby, Muhammad sought a concession to his faith that has no impact on anyone other than himself. As Alito’s opinion in Holt lays out, the prison’s concerns about the consequences of allowing him to grow a beard were unwarranted. And no one else will have to do anything with their facial hair (or, for that matter, lose access to important medical care), because Muhammad will be allowed to grow a beard.