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Justices debate jailhouse beards

The Supreme Court appeared skeptical Tuesday of regulations barring a prison inmate from growing a beard as part of his Muslim faith, suggesting religious rights for incarcerated criminals trump safety concerns presented by the facial hair.

But just where to draw the line between those competing interests seemed to be an open question among the justices.

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In taking up the case known as Holt v. Hobbs, Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleagues are delving back into religious freedom, an issue they last confronted in June with a ruling limiting the reach of ObamaCare’s employer “birth control mandate.”

Though a far cry from the cause célèbre that was Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the case before the court Tuesday similarly centered on questions involving friction between federal legislation and faith.

At issue in the case is whether Arkansas prisoner Gregory Holt can grow a half-inch beard in keeping with his religious beliefs. The Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy restricts facial hair length to a quarter of an inch, a measure meant to keep inmates from hiding contraband in their beards.

But justices at both ends of the political spectrum questioned that reasoning, taking issue with the government’s position that there is no less restrictive way than the grooming policy to ensure inmates don’t hide razor blades or other items in their beards.

Justice Samuel AlitoSamuel AlitoConservative justices seem prepared to let Trump proceed with immigrant census plan for now For Thanksgiving, the Supreme Court upholds religious liberty Alito to far-right litigants: The buffet is open MORE questioned why the prison guards couldn’t simply require inmates to run a comb through their beard every now and again.

“And if there's anything in there — if there's a SIM card in there or … a tiny revolver — it’ll fall out,” Alito quipped, prompting laughter in the court.

Countered attorney David Curran, representing Arkansas in the case: “You know, I suppose that's a possible alternative.”

But some justices said the real question is the scope of the 2000 Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which bars government from imposing “a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.”

The case represents the first challenge to the 2000 statute, but likely not the last, said Justice Antonin Scalia. He warned that additional challenges would surely follow to test the bounds of protections afforded by the law.

“I don't want to do these cases half-inch by half-inch,” he said. “Let's take a case that involves a full beard.”

Other justices questioned the attorneys on how the law would apply to religious beliefs involving long hair, the wearing of turbans or even polygamy.

Ultimately, they must decide whether there exists a compelling government interest in restricting Holt’s religious liberty and, if there is one, how much deference should be granted to prison officials.

Attorney Douglas Laycock, arguing on behalf of Holt, contends that the Arkansas Department of Correction rules go too far.

“So what they really seek is absolute deference to anything they say, just because they say it,” Laycock argued.

Under questioning from the justices, Curran conceded concerns about hidden contraband would remain under the policy, given regulations allowing inmates to wear their hair to the middle of their necks.

But he said the department also has concerns that inmates with beards would be able to quickly alter their appearance or thwart identification by quickly shaving their beard, presenting additional security threats.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Scalia argued that addressing those fears would be simple.

“What prevents you from taking a photograph before he grows the half-inch beard, which can then be distributed to police departments if he escapes?” Scalia asked.

The court, just beginning a new term this week, has until next spring to rule on the case.