WASHINGTON — A Supreme Court that has extended the reach of religion into public life in recent years ruled Tuesday that spirituality can overcome even prison security concerns.
The court came down decisively on the side of a Muslim prisoner whose beard had been deemed potentially dangerous by the Arkansas Department of Correction. Growing a beard, the justices said, was a Muslim man's religious right.
The unanimous opinion, written by Justice Samuel Alito, had been widely anticipated despite two lower court decisions upholding the state's no-beard policy.
"Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a half-inch beard, and the same is true of an inmate's clothing and shoes," Alito said. "Nevertheless, the department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot or naked."
The ruling extended the high court's reverence for religious beliefs and observances. In its last term, the justices allowed family-owned businesses with religious objections to deny health insurance coverage for contraceptives, and they upheld prayers at municipal government meetings.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg issued a one-paragraph concurrence to point out what she deemed the difference between Holt's religious rights and the more intrusive health insurance exemption sought and won by Hobby Lobby and other businesses in a controversial 5-4 decision last June.
"Unlike the exemption this court approved (in Hobby Lobby), accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief," she said.
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.