The Supreme Court on Tuesday unanimously ruled in favor of a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who said that a policy that banned him from growing a beard violated his religious rights.

Gregory Holt asked permission to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. Though he said that his religious belief forbids him from cutting his beard at all, he said that he would compromise and limit his facial hair to half an inch.


Prison officials denied his request, citing a ban on beards except in cases in which a prisoner has a skin condition. They said that allowing prisoners to grow beards would be a safety risk because prisoners could use them to hide contraband or shave them to quickly disguise their appearance. He sued the officials, saying that they were violating a 2000 law aimed at protecting the religious freedom of prisoners.

Holt is serving a life sentence for breaking into his ex-girlfriend's house and stabbing her in the chest and neck.

The court ruled unanimously that prison officials had violated the law in denying Holt’s request to grow a beard.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act says states can only take action limiting an inmate's religious freedom if it is the "least restrictive" method of achieving a compelling government interest.

Writing for the court, Justice Samuel Alito said the Arkansas Department of Correction had not shown that prohibiting an inmate from growing a half-inch beard served a clear purpose in stopping the smuggling of contraband.

"We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities," he wrote, "but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is hard to take seriously."

Alito wrote that the prison did not ban hair longer than half an inch, where prisoners might also be able to hide contraband.

"Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a 1⁄2-inch beard — and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes," he wrote. "Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked."

The justices also said that the state could easily search a half-inch beard for contraband, rather than restricting Holt from growing one entirely.

Alito also wrote that the prison could find a less restrictive way of stopping prisoners from disguising themselves by shaving their beards — noting that many prison systems photograph prisoners both clean-shaven and with beards.

The case comes less than a year after the court decided another religious liberty case, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. The Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain said ObamaCare's mandate that they provide employees with contraception coverage violated their religious liberty. The court ruled in favor of the owners in a 5-4 decision, exempting some closely held companies from the mandate.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a searing dissent in the Hobby Lobby case, sought to differentiate the two cases in a concurring opinion to the Holt decision.

"Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. ... accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief," she wrote. "On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion."

— This story was updated at 12:04 p.m.