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J. Scott Applewhite, AP
Attorney Douglas Laycock, center, speaks with reporters after his argument before the Supreme Court on behalf of an Arkansas prison inmate who says his Muslim beliefs that require him to grow a beard are being violated by prison rules that prevent beards, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014, in Washington. At left is Hannah Smith, a senior counsel with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Supporters of religious freedom say Monday's U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowing a Muslim inmate in Arkansas to grow a beard is part of a continuing commitment by the high court to guarantee individual religious liberties.

In a 9-0 decision, the high court said it was a religious right for Abdul Maalik Muhammad, a Muslim inmate also known as Gregory Holt, to grow a beard as part of his religious observance, despite an Arkansas prison rule against beards that are not needed for medical reasons.

Arkansas prison officials "failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests" in maintaining order and discipline in prison, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the unanimous panel. Arkansas officials had argued a beard could be used to hide contraband, or could easily be shaved should a prisoner escape and wish to change his appearance.

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented the Arkansas inmate, said Monday's decision extends far beyond an individual inmate's concerns.

"The scope of the opinion is not limited to prisoner cases," he said. "What it says is … the government is held to a very high standard, and they can't get away with just their say-so."

The ruling is the latest in a string of religious liberty victories at the high court. In 2012's Hosanna-Tabor ruling, justices said the right of denominations to choose their ministers outweighed workplace discrimination laws. Two 2013 Supreme Court decisions affirmed the rights of legislative bodies to open their meetings with a prayer, and then they extended religious conscience rights to privately held corporations. The Hobby Lobby decision split the court 5-4, unlike the Holt case, which was unanimous.

Muslim convert

Holt is serving a life sentence for a brutal assault on his girlfriend and is being held at a maximum security prison 80 miles southeast of Little Rock, the Associated Press reported. In court filings, Holt's attorneys state he is a "devout Muslim."

His case first came to the court's attention when he filed a handwritten plea to the court asking it to block enforcement of Arkansas' no-beard rule.

Holt argued in court papers that his obligation to grow a beard comes from hadiths, accounts of the acts or statements of the Prophet Muhammad. In one statement attributed to the prophet, Muslims are commanded to "cut the mustaches short and leave the beard."

Holt said he understands that statement to mean he should grow a full beard, but offered a half-inch beard as a compromise because California allows Muslim inmates to wear beards of that length.

According to the Becket Fund, 43 state, federal and local prison systems would have permitted a beard of Holt's proposed length.

But Arkansas officials said the possibility of hiding contraband including drugs, cell phone SIM cards and even razor blades in a short beard should allow them to enforce their policy.

But the justices were skeptical of the security concerns.

"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," Alito wrote. "Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked."

Fundamental right

Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist who heads the denomination's Ethics & Religious Liberty Center, approved of the latest ruling, but added, "I'm of a mixed mind of how jubilant to be about religious liberty" in light of these rulings, because "I'm discouraged that we had to go to the highest court in the land on some of these (cases)."

An attorney who represented Muhammad praised the ruling, noting a wide range of support for the prisoner's rights.

"The Court repeated a fundamental American principle today: Government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices," Rassbach said in a statement.

"Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to. What’s more, the court’s unanimous decision (Monday), and the broad-based support among such diverse groups in this case, shows that religious liberty remains one of the central ideals of America that unifies us as a nation," he said.

Rassbach said granting inmates the right to practice their faith was a smart move. "If you allow people to engage in religious exercise when in prison, it lowers the rate of recidivism afterwards," he asserted, citing a study of the InnerChange Initiative, a project of Justice Fellowship, an evangelical Christian organization founded by the late Chuck Colson.

Jesse Wiese, a former prisoner who now holds a law degree and is Justice Fellowship's policy director, agreed.

"Our religious freedoms can't be dependent upon their social efficacy," he said. "To reduce them based on their effectiveness is to ultimately reduce our humanity."

Moore said he wasn't worried about the ruling going "too far" to advance prisoners' religious rights; instead, his "fear (was) of consequences on the other end, the erosions of free exercise and religious liberty in all sorts of places."

And Nathan Diamant, executive director of public policy for the Orthodox Union, the nation's largest Orthodox Jewish group, emphasized that the ruling was centered on an individual religious exercise issue.

"This case was particularly about whether a Muslim inmate can wear a beard as an exercise of their religious practice," Diamant said. "We firmly believe that within appropriate security constraints, a prisoner should be able to exercise their religion."

In a concurring opinion, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who issued a stinging dissent in the Hobby Lobby case, wrote a concurring statement in which she said, "accommodating (Muhammad's) religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief."

Asked about this, Rassbach said, "Clearly her opinion in Hobby Lobby is in tension with ruling in favor of Mr. Muhammad today. The legal standard is the same one."

Contributing: The Associated Press

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Twitter: @Mark_Kellner