Court gives thumbs up to Muslim beards in prison

We may not know on a month to month basis how the Supremes will rule on things like Obamacare or gay marriage, but they’ve finally settled one of the great questions of the day with no room for ambiguity. If you’re a Muslim in prison, you can grow your beard.. at least to a reasonable length.

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas can grow a short beard for religious reasons.

The court’s decision in a case about religious liberty stands in contrast to the Hobby Lobby case that bitterly divided the justices in June over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women’s contraceptives under the health care overhaul.

The justices said that inmate Gregory Holt could maintain a half-inch beard because Arkansas prison officials could not substantiate claims that the beard posed a security risk.

Holt claimed that he has a right to grow a beard under a federal law aimed at protecting prisoners’ religious rights. The law is similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that the court said in a 5-4 outcome in late June could be invoked by business owners who object to paying for contraceptives.

This time around, the Obama administration, religious groups and atheists alike backed Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. More than 40 states allow inmates to keep beards.

The real story here has far less to do with the specifics of Mr. Holt’s case than the hypocrisy on display when it comes to the White House and alleged supporters of religious freedom. Other than enforced conformity (which has its own merits) among the inmates, I’m not exactly sure what the benefits of mandatory shaving are for prisoners. I suppose there’s a case for sanitary conditions to be made, the prevention and transmission of body lice and such, but that’s a bit vague. If the guy is sporting a Duck Dynasty beard I guess he could hide a box cutter or some other very small weapon in it, so the length limit makes sense. But a short, neatly cropped beard doesn’t seem like a major security concern.

The real point here, however, is that once you stray off the path far enough to wind up in the penal system, some standardization and limits are to be expected. (At least as much as you run into when you enlist in the military and head off to boot camp.) Perhaps exceptions can and should be made to that on the basis of religious freedom. But if we have the White House weighing in on this question, where were they when the Hobby Lobby case was going through the courts? Is the right of someone to grow a one inch beard in the name of religion more valuable than what could be seen as far more intimate and intrusive questions regarding Christian concerns? I did a little checking into the requirements for Muslim men to grow beards and honestly the results are rather mixed. The concerns in the Hobby Lobby case are not.

There’s more than a little blurring of the lines going on here.