The Supreme Court Oct. 7 took up the case of an Arkansas prisoner who is seeking permission to grow a beard, in keeping with the instructions of his Muslim faith. The prisoner, Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik, is challenging the prison system’s blanket ban on inmates having beards for any reason but medical need.
There is a serious constitutional issue at stake — does the prison system’s need to control inmate behavior trump an individual’s right to follow the teachings of his faith.
But as you might expect in a case about beards, the topic inspired a few wisecracks and lighthearted discussions about the ramifications of policies.
The transcript of the oral argument includes an exchange about the difference between the beard ban and the same prison’s policy on hair, which can be unlimited in length on top as long as it doesn’t hang any lower than mid-neck.
At another point, Justice Samuel Alito wondered why a prison that’s worried about inmates hiding contraband in beards couldn’t simply require prisoners to run a comb through their beards.
That way, he said:
“If there’s a SIM card in there or a revolver or anything else you think can be hidden in a 1/2-inch beard, a tiny revolver, it’ll fall out.”
And Justice Antonin Scalia couldn’t resist putting in his take on the power of a commandment of God:
“Well, religious beliefs aren’t reasonable. I mean, religious beliefs are categorical. You know, it’s God tells you. It’s not a matter of being reasonable. God be reasonable? He’s supposed to have a full beard.”