By Lawrence Hurley
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. Supreme Court justices, hearing an important religious rights case on Tuesday, expressed doubt over whether the state of Arkansas can justify preventing a Muslim inmate from having a beard.
The court appears likely to grant convicted burglar Gregory Holt's request to have a half-inch (1.3 cm) beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. But the justices seemed unsure where to draw the line over whether prison officials could have valid reasons for banning longer beards, which could lead to a narrow ruling.
Holt says 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.
Holt's lawyers note that more than 40 states and the federal government allow prison inmates to have similar beards.
For the prison regulation to be deemed lawful, the court must find that the government had a good reason to impose on an inmate's religious beliefs.
The state said the rule is necessary for security reasons, contending that bearded inmates could easily change their appearance by shaving their beards or could hide contraband in their beards.
Although they appeared sympathetic to the notion that beards could be a potential security risk, various justices cited apparent inconsistencies in Arkansas's arguments.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg noted the prison had no policy restricting the length of other hair. If someone had long, thick hair growing from the top of the head, "it seems more could be hidden than in a beard," she said.
Justice Samuel Alito questioned whether a requirement that inmates comb their beards in front of prison guards could ease potential security problems because a hidden object like a mobile phone SIM card or even a "tiny revolver" would be uncovered.
"It'll fall out" when combed, Alito said, to chuckles in the courtroom.
Arkansas Deputy Attorney General David Curran gave the justices a lengthy description of how the no-beard rule helps prevent inmates from changing their appearance so they can gain access to a restricted area, possibly to commit an assault.
He was stopped short by Chief Justice John Roberts. "But you have no examples of that ever happening," Roberts said.
The ruling, due by the end of June, could be limited in scope because the justices sounded conflicted over situations in which the state may be able to justify a similar rule that would apply, for example, to longer beards.
Several justices displayed exasperation that the court might be prevented from deciding the issue once and for all. "I don't want to do these cases half-inch by half-inch," said Justice Antonin Scalia.
The court had already signaled its interest in the case in November 2013 when it said Holt could grow his beard while contesting the policy.
Holt is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery at the Varner Supermax prison, according to the Arkansas Department of Correction.
The case is Holt v. Hobbs, U.S. Supreme Court, 13-6827.
(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Editing by Will Dunham)