When the new Supreme Court term begins next week, it will return to the issue of religious liberty in the case of Holt v. Hobbes. In that case, the Roberts court has the opportunity to demonstrate that the right to freely exercise one’s religion does not protect only business-owners and Christians — who prevailed in last year’s Hobby Lobby case — but also protects convicts and Muslims.

Bringing this lawsuit is Gregory Houston Holt, who, since his conversion to Islam, has called himself Abdul Maalik Muhammad. Based on his reading of the hadith, or the traditional accounts of the words and deeds of the prophet Muhammad, he wishes to grow a beard. In this respect, his actions are consistent with the practice of many traditional Muslims. Holt is, however, currently serving a prison sentence with the Arkansas Department of Corrections, which has a policy forbidding beards.

Holt argues that his right to practice his religion in this way is protected by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which guarantees the religious freedom rights of prisoners. Although both of the lower courts that have heard the case sided with the government, the Supreme Court should rule in Holt’s favor.

To be sure, Holt is not a nice man, and his conduct would not reflect well on any religion. In the spring of 2009, he broke into his ex-girlfriend’s home, terrorized her and stabbed her in the throat and chest. Prior to the trial, he sent letters threatening to “wage jihad” against police and court personnel, and in another threatening letter called for “Death to America!” He was convicted and is now serving a life sentence. While in prison, he has threatened other inmates and prison staff.

Even so, Holt retains certain fundamental rights reserved to him by the Constitution and laws of the United States, including the right to freely exercise his religion. That right has long held a privileged place in our laws, because it belongs to us as a consequence of our basic humanity. Because every human person has a conscience and his own intelligence, each of us has an obligation — and therefore, also the right — to confront the fundamental questions about the meaning and purpose of human life that have traditionally been answered by religion.

Whether or not one accepts the answers to those questions offered by any traditional religion, or one reaches unique answers of one’s own, to be compelled to betray one’s conscience, in any matter where the rights and safety of others are not at issue, is a fundamental violation of one’s human dignity. We protect religious freedom because we value personal integrity and we respect the freedom of mind and conscience, and even the fact of a criminal conviction and a pattern of dangerous conduct should not deprive anyone of this most fundamental freedom.

The law Holt is invoking is substantially similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act that the Court examined in the Hobby Lobby case. Both laws hold that the religious person’s right to practice his religion may not be abridged unless the government has a “compelling” reason for doing so and there is no alternative and less restrictive means by which the government can achieve its goals.

The Arkansas Department of Corrections insists that its policy against beards is needed for two principal reasons: first, to prevent potential escapees from easily altering their appearance, and second, to prevent inmates from hiding contraband in them. Holt concedes that a long beard might present a danger in a prison environment and so has asked to be allowed to grow only a one-half-inch beard. The ADC says that even that is too long.

The lower courts found, correctly, that protecting the public safety and the safety of corrections officers are “compelling” goals. But their holding that banning beards entirely is the least restrictive way of accomplishing them is unpersuasive, because so many other states have permitted inmates to wear beards, without encountering serious problems.

Indeed, 44 other states currently would permit inmates to wear a one-half-inch beard, and 41 of those states have no length limit; of those, 34 permit all inmates to wear beards, and the rest allow religious exceptions to the general ban. What so many other states can do, Arkansas can do as well.

By ruling in favor of Holt, the Supreme Court will reaffirm that the right to exercise one’s religion truly belongs to everyone.

Joseph R. Reisert is associate professor of American constitutional law and chairman of the department of government at Colby College in Waterville.

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