WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled that Arkansas corrections officials had violated the religious liberty rights of Muslim inmates by forbidding them to grow beards.
The case concerned Gregory H. Holt, who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery. Mr. Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, sought to grow a half-inch beard.
More than 40 state prison systems allow such short beards. Most allow longer ones. The exceptions, according to Mr. Holt’s brief, are Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
In Arkansas, prison regulations allow “neatly trimmed” mustaches, along with quarter-inch beards for inmates with dermatologic problems, but ban beards in other cases.
The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, in St. Louis, ruled that the state’s security concerns were sufficient to prohibit Mr. Holt from growing a beard. Mr. Holt then filed a handwritten petition asking the justices to hear his case, pointing out that other courts had struck down policies banning beards in prisons.
In deciding the case, the justices applied the same legal test that they used in June in the Hobby Lobby case, which allowed some corporations run on religious principles to refuse to pay for contraception coverage for their female workers.
The test, set out in federal statutes, first considers whether the challenged government regulation places a substantial burden on religious practices. If it does, the test requires the government to show that it had a compelling reason for the regulation and no better way to achieve it.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the author of the majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, also wrote the court’s opinion in Tuesday’s case, Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827.
He said Mr. Holt had “easily satisfied” the requirement of showing that the ban on beards burdened his religious practices. Justice Alito said a trial judge had been mistaken in saying it was enough to provide Mr. Holt with a prayer rug, the ability to correspond with a religious adviser, appropriate meals and the like.
Even so, prison officials said they had compelling reasons for the ban, the most important being combating contraband. Even short beards, one official said, can conceal “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts.” Another said that SIM cards for cellphones can also be hidden in beards.
Justice Alito responded that the idea that security “would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously.”
“An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a half-inch beard,” he wrote, “and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out.”
Arkansas prisons do not require “shaved heads or short crew cuts,” Justice Alito wrote, and so “it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a half-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head.”
Justice Alito noted that a magistrate judge had observed Mr. Holt and said, “It’s almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard.”
If officials remain fearful of contraband, Justice Alito said, they may search prisoners’ beards.
“The department already searches prisoners’ hair and clothing, and it presumably examines the quarter-inch beards of inmates with dermatological conditions,” he wrote, dismissing concerns “that requiring guards to search a prisoner’s beard would pose a risk to the physical safety of a guard if a razor or needle was concealed in the beard.”
That is true of other kinds of searches, Justice Alito wrote, adding that guards could also require that “the prisoner run a comb through his beard.”
Prison officials offered a second justification for the ban, saying that allowing beards would make it easy for prisoners to alter their appearance. They said they were particularly worried about identification problems in prisons where inmates live in barracks and work in the fields.
Justice Alito responded that the prison authorities could take pictures of inmates with and without beards. He added that the ban on beards was curious given that “prisoners are allowed to grow mustaches, head hair or quarter-inch beards for medical reasons.”
“All of these could also be shaved off at a moment’s notice,” he said.
Justice Alito’s decision was studded with citations to the Hobby Lobby case. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who dissented from that decision, added a one-paragraph concurrence to Tuesday’s decision to draw a distinction between the two rulings.
“Unlike the exemption this court approved in” the Hobby Lobby decision, she wrote, “accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.”