WASHINGTON – 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.
Justice Samuel Alito said in his opinion for the court that Arkansas can satisfy its security concerns in some other way when "so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security."
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote the dissent in the Hobby Lobby case, remarked on her view of the differences between the two cases in a brief separate opinion Tuesday.
Unlike the exception the court approved in June for Hobby Lobby, "accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief," Ginsburg wrote.
Judd P. Deere, a spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, expressed disappointment with the ruling, but said the court "emphasized that prisons are dangerous places" and that judges must take security into account when analyzing religious freedom claims.
Holt is serving a life sentence for a brutal assault on his girlfriend and is being held at a maximum security prison 80 miles southeast of Little Rock. His case first came to the court's attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas' no-beard rule.
Holt argued in court papers that his obligation to grow a beard comes from hadiths, accounts of the acts or statements of the Prophet Muhammad. In one statement attributed to the prophet, Muslims are commanded to "cut the mustaches short and leave the beard."
Holt said he understands that statement to mean he should grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch beard as a compromise because California allows Muslim inmates to wear beards of that length.
The case is Holt v. Hobbs, 13-6827.
Associated Press writer Nomaan Merchant contributed to this report from Dallas.