What one man's beard says about religious freedom work

Compiled by Kelsey Dallas, Deseret News National Edition

Published: Tue, Aug. 26, 2014, 5:40 a.m. MDT

(RoborDestrani, Getty Images/iStockphoto)

The next religious freedom case on the Supreme Court's docket involves prisons, beards and adversaries-turned-allies.

In Holt v. Hobbs, Muslim prisoner Gregory Holt seeks the right to maintain a "one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs." A federal trial court and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals previously sided in favor of the Arkansas Department of Corrections and its prohibition of Holt's beard.

In a column for Religion News Service, Daniel Bennett noted that the case illustrates the "complicated enterprise" of religious freedom work. Because of the wide variety of issues encapsulated by the term, organizations that battle against each other in one lawsuit might be aligned on the next.

For example, Holt v. Hobbs has marshalled the support of the two groups that June's Hobby Lobby decision divided: The Becket Fund (which serves as part of Holt's legal team) and the Obama administration.

"This case is bringing together a diverse coalition," wrote Bennett. "The Obama administration is lining up behind a group that, just a few months ago, dealt its signature policy achievement (the Affordable Care Act) a major defeat."

The government's support of Holt's request shouldn't be surprising, however. An infographic of the case, provided by the Becket Fund, reports that 41 prison systems in America already allow beards longer than Holt's one-half-inch request.

However, the straightforward nature of the choice doesn't mean that the Obama administration has escaped criticism. Publications like the Las Vegas Review-Journal questioned how the government leaders justify their shifting opinions on religious freedom issues.

The Holt v. Hobbs case will center on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that requires prison officials to show that policies that burden religious practices advance a compelling penological interest and use the least restrictive means to do so," The New York Times reported.

Prison officials in Arkansas have argued that their stance against prisoners growing beards for religious reasons is part of their commitment to safety. "They say beards make it easier for inmates to hide contraband and that an escaped bearded prisoner could disguise his identity quickly by shaving," ABP news reported.

However, Holt's supporters have pointed out that the Arkansas DOC does allow beards in the case of prisoners who develop rashes from close shaving.

Although oral arguments won't begin until October or November, the Times noted that an interim order in November 2013 allowed Holt to keep his beard for the time being.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @kelsey_dallas

1. JoeBlow
Far East USA, SC,
Aug. 26, 2014

So, are those who constantly assert that there is a war on religion, going to support this?

This should be interesting.

2. Esquire
Springville, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

It just hurts you people at this newspaper when the Obama Administration is actually on your side and you still have to take a shot. Maybe the so-called war on religion that you have been fretting about is a mere concoction intended to advance the particular interests of the religious institutions seeking an advantage. THERE IS NO WAR ON RELIGION!

3. Paul Timothy Gibbs
Taylorsville, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

Speaking as a religious (LDS) person, I think we need to consider that the greatest ally of religious freedom is separation of church and state. Only when our government does not favor one religious belief over another can we really have religious freedom. We also need to consider that there is a false belief, becoming more and more prominent, that religious freedom involves a right for religious groups to impose their will on others. This is patently untrue and not at all in the spirit of religious freedom. Very few things are more important than freedom of religion, but we really need to examine what it truly means.

4. patriot
Cedar Hills, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

wow that's quite the beard....the man ought to be in commercials.

5. The Wraith
Kaysville, UT,
Aug. 26, 2014

The man should be allowed to have his beard. His religion should be respected.