Abdul Maalik Muhammad (Gregory Holt)

(by Lawrence Hurley, Reuters) – An Arkansas policy prohibiting inmates from having beards violated the religious rights of a prisoner who had wanted to grow one in accordance with his Muslim beliefs, a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday.

The justices, on a 9-0 vote in a closely watched case involving prisoner Gregory Holt, known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, rejected the state’s reasoning that the policy was needed for security reasons to prevent inmates from concealing contraband.

Holt, who wanted to grow a half-inch beard, is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction. In 2005, he pleaded guilty to separate charges of threatening the daughters of then-President George W. Bush.

Holt, without any legal representation at the time, persuaded the court to hear his case by filing a handwritten petition.

Justice Samuel Alito, writing on behalf of the court, said the state already searches clothing and hair and had not given a valid reason why it could not also search beards.

Alito wrote that the prison’s “interest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard.”

Holt said the state’s prison grooming policy prohibiting inmates from having facial hair other than a “neatly trimmed mustache” violated his religious rights under a 2000 federal law called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

His lawyers noted that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.

Eric Rassbach, a lawyer for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a religious rights legal group that helped represent Holt, called the ruling “a huge win for religious freedom.”

“What the Supreme Court said today was that government officials cannot impose arbitrary restrictions on religious liberty just because they think government knows best,” Rassbach added.

Eighteen states had backed Arkansas, saying the court should defer to the judgment of prison officials.Judd Deere, spokesman for Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, said, “We are disappointed that the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the decisions of the two lower federal courts that reviewed the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy.”

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a pointed concurring opinion that recalled the court’s bitterly divided 2014 decision allowing for-profit companies to deny employees contraceptive insurance coverage based on company owners’ religious beliefs.

“Unlike the exemption this court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores*,” Ginsburg said, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, “accommodating (Holt’s) religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share (his) belief.”

The case is Holt v. Hobbs, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-6827. [The Obama administration, religious groups and atheists alike supported Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. ]

[*In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Hobby Lobby’s challenge to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores. Hobby Lobby’s owners objected to a provision requiring businesses to include coverage of certain “contraceptives.”  The Green family had no moral objection to the use of 16 of 20 contraceptives required in the mandate, and Hobby Lobby would continue its longstanding practice of covering these preventive contraceptives for its employees. They only objected to being forced to provide 4 potentially life-threatening drugs and devices. These drugs include the morning-after pill and the week-after pill (which are abortifacients: substances that induce abortion.) They argued that this portion of the Obamacare law violated their religious rights.  (In their ruling, the justices broke new legal ground by affirming that corporations, not just individual Americans or religious nonprofits, may claim these rights.)]

(Additional reporting by Joan Biskupic in Washington and Steve Barnes in Little Rock). Reprinted here for educational purposes only. May not be reproduced on other websites without permission from Thomson Reuters. Visit the website at Reuters .com.


1. The first paragraph of a news article should answer the questions who, what, where and when. List the who, what, where and when of this news item. (NOTE: The remainder of a news article provides details on the why and/or how.)

2. How did the Justices vote in this case?

3. How did the state of Arkansas defend its policy?

4. How did Justice Samuel Alito explain the court’s decision?

5. a) On what grounds did Holt argue that he had a right to keep his beard?
b) What point did his lawyers make about prison inmates being permitted to have similar beards?

6. Why did 18 states back Arkansas’ policy?

7. How did Becket Fund for Religious Liberty lawyer Eric Rassbach interpret the court’s ruling in Holt-Muhammad’s favor?


(from supremecourt.gov/visiting/visitorsguidetooralargument.aspx)

  • A case selected for argument usually involves interpretations of the U. S. Constitution or federal law. At least four Justices have selected the case as being of such importance that the Supreme Court must resolve the legal issues.
  • An attorney for each side of a case will have an opportunity to make a presentation to the Court and answer questions posed by the Justices. Prior to the argument each side has submitted a legal brief – a written legal argument outlining each party’s points of law. The Justices have read these briefs prior to argument and are thoroughly familiar with the case, its facts, and the legal positions that each party is advocating.
  • Beginning the first Monday in October, the Court generally hears two one-hour arguments a day, at 10 a.m. and 11 a.m., with occasional afternoon sessions scheduled as necessary. Arguments are held on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays in two-week intervals through late April (with longer breaks during December and February). The argument calendars are posted on the Court’s Website under the “Oral Arguments” link. In the recesses between argument sessions, the Justices are busy writing opinions, deciding which cases to hear in the future, and reading the briefs for the next argument session. They grant review in approximately 100 of the more than 10,000 petitions filed with the Court each term. No one knows exactly when a decision will be handed down by the Court in an argued case, nor is there a set time period in which the Justices must reach a decision. However, all cases argued during a term of Court are decided before the summer recess begins, usually by the end of June.
  • During an argument week, the Justices meet in a private conference, closed even to staff, to discuss the cases and to take a preliminary vote on each case. If the Chief Justice is in the majority on a case decision, he decides who will write the opinion. He may decide to write it himself or he may assign that duty to any other Justice in the majority. If the Chief Justice is in the minority, the Justice in the majority who has the most seniority assumes the assignment duty.

On the Supreme Court from BensGuide.gpo.gov:

  • Approximately 7,500 cases are sent to the Supreme Court each year. Out of these, only 80 to 100 are actually heard by the Supreme Court. When a case comes to the Supreme Court, several things happen. First, the Justices get together to decide if a case is worthy of being brought before the Court. In other words, does the case really involve Constitutional or federal law? Secondly, a Supreme Court ruling can affect the outcome of hundreds or even thousands of cases in lower courts around the country. Therefore, the Court tries to use this enormous power only when a case presents a pressing constitutional issue. …
  • The Supreme Court convenes, or meets, the first Monday in October. It stays in session usually until late June of the next year. When they are not hearing cases, the Justices do legal research and write opinions. On Fridays, they meet in private (in “conference”) to discuss cases they’ve heard and to vote on them. …
  • Most cases do not start in the Supreme Court. Usually cases are first brought in front of lower (state or federal) courts. Each disputing party is made up of a petitioner and a respondent.
  • Once the lower court makes a decisions, if the losing party does not think that justice was served, s/he may appeal the case, or bring it to a higher court. In the state court system, these higher courts are called appellate courts. In the federal court system, the lower courts are called United States District Courts and the higher courts are called United States Courts of Appeals.
  • If the higher court’s ruling disagrees with the lower court’s ruling, the original decision is overturned. If the higher court’s ruling agrees with the lower court’s decision, then the losing party may ask that the case be taken to the Supreme Court. But … only cases involving federal or Constitutional law are brought to the highest court in the land.


More about the case:

Gregory Holt of Little Rock was sentenced to life in prison for domestic violence (cutting his girlfriend’s throat) and burglary –  after jurors saw letters he’d written describing himself as an “American Taliban” and calling for death to America. The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette said in 2012 that prosecutors said Holt cut his girlfriend’s throat and stabbed her in the chest at her mobile home. At sentencing, deputy prosecutor Will Jones showed jurors eight letters Holt had written from jail. In the letters, Holt occasionally praised Osama bin Laden, dreamed of dying a martyr in a jihad, and wrote poetry imagining Little Rock police detective Damon Whitener being decapitated by the Taliban. Holt also wrote how he wasn’t bound by American laws, but only recognized the Shariah law of Islam. During Holt’s trial he wrote manifestos advising that “I intend to wage jihad against any court personnel, detectives, adverse witnesses, and will do whatever it takes to get these individuals, as Allah is my witness.”  The proceedings before Circuit Judge Marion Humphrey also revealed that Holt had been feuding with Abdulhakim Mujahid Muhammad, the Tennessee man charged with capital murder over the slaying of a soldier at a Little Rock recruiting center. The dispute purportedly was over which man is the better Muslim.

In Holt v. Hobbs, Holt sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or Rluipa. Some state prisons used to deny incarcerated believers prayer mats, kosher meals and the like. So in 2000 Congress voted unanimously to extend to inmates the same protections of the 1993 Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA: If government infringes on religion, such intrusions must serve a compelling interest and use the “least restrictive” means.

  • Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel argues that prison officials – and not courts – have wide latitude in determining security risks among the incarcerated.
  • The state’s legal brief rests in great part on the objections of prison officials concerned that a bearded prisoner could hide weapons, drugs or even cellphone SIM cards in his facial hair.
  • But they had other concerns. Escaped prisoners can quickly shave to make themselves harder to catch. The prison doesn’t have the resources to regularly check beard lengths or to protect guards from inmates who do not appreciate having their beards scrutinized for contraband. And any policy that seems to privilege one prisoner over another can foment unrest among inmates.
  • Holt, the brief also states, has put a knife to the neck of a fellow prisoner in a religious dispute. He has repeatedly stated his intention to harm public officials and pleaded guilty to threatening to kidnap and harm the daughters of former President George W. Bush. He has declared himself  “at war” with the prison barber and has threatened to hurt him. Still, Holt — who adheres to Salafism, a particularly conservative interpretation of Islam widely practiced in Saudi Arabia — has been given many opportunities for religious observance.
  • “He is able to acknowledge his religion in a variety of other ways without wearing a beard, such as the use of a prayer rug during his worship times, reading and studying the Koran, communicating with a religious advisor, maintaining the required diet, and observing religious holidays,” the brief states.
  • Arkansas officials also noted that some Muslim men do not wear beards.
  • As with most religions, adherents vary in their practice. And although there is nothing in the Quran that requires Muslim men to grow a beard, three of the four major schools of Sunni Islam consider it mandatory. (from religionnews.com)


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