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What one man's beard says about religious freedom work

The next religious freedom case on the Supreme Court's docket involves prisons, beards and adversaries-turned-allies.

In Holt v. Hobbs, Muslim prisoner Gregory Holt seeks the right to maintain a "one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs." A federal trial court and the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals previously sided in favor of the Arkansas Department of Corrections and its prohibition of Holt's beard.

In a column for Religion News Service, Daniel Bennett noted that the case illustrates the "complicated enterprise" of religious freedom work. Because of the wide variety of issues encapsulated by the term, organizations that battle against each other in one lawsuit might be aligned on the next.

For example, Holt v. Hobbs has marshalled the support of the two groups that June's Hobby Lobby decision divided: The Becket Fund (which serves as part of Holt's legal team) and the Obama administration.

"This case is bringing together a diverse coalition," wrote Bennett. "The Obama administration is lining up behind a group that, just a few months ago, dealt its signature policy achievement (the Affordable Care Act) a major defeat."

The government's support of Holt's request shouldn't be surprising, however. An infographic of the case, provided by the Becket Fund, reports that 41 prison systems in America already allow beards longer than Holt's one-half-inch request.

However, the straightforward nature of the choice doesn't mean that the Obama administration has escaped criticism. Publications like the Las Vegas Review-Journal questioned how the government leaders justify their shifting opinions on religious freedom issues.

The Holt v. Hobbs case will center on the Supreme Court's interpretation of the "Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a federal law that requires prison officials to show that policies that burden religious practices advance a compelling penological interest and use the least restrictive means to do so," The New York Times reported.

Prison officials in Arkansas have argued that their stance against prisoners growing beards for religious reasons is part of their commitment to safety. "They say beards make it easier for inmates to hide contraband and that an escaped bearded prisoner could disguise his identity quickly by shaving," ABP news reported.

However, Holt's supporters have pointed out that the Arkansas DOC does allow beards in the case of prisoners who develop rashes from close shaving.

Although oral arguments won't begin until October or November, the Times noted that an interim order in November 2013 allowed Holt to keep his beard for the time being.

Email: kdallas@deseretnews.com Twitter: @kelsey_dallas