For Supreme Court, it's all about that Muslim beard — or was religious liberty case really about Hobby Lobby?

Did you hear about the U.S. Supreme Court case involving a Muslim inmate's right to grow a beard for religious reasons? 

In case you missed it, justices ruled unanimously Tuesday in inmate Gregory Houston Holt's favor.

From The Washington Post:

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., writing for the court, said Arkansas prison officials had violated a federal law passed to protect religious practices from policies set by state and local officials.
Alito said the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act does not require a prison to grant religious exemptions simply because a prisoner asks or because other prisons do. But he said Arkansas officials offered no evidence that a short beard presented security risks or could serve as a hiding place for contraband, as the officials once argued.

Most of the media coverage — from CNN, The New York Times and others — seems pretty straightforward.

But give The Associated Press and the Post extra credit for explaining the prisoner's religious reasoning.

From AP:

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.

And from the Post:

Holt is serving a life sentence for slitting the throat of a former girlfriend and stabbing her in the chest. He is also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, and according to his brief to the court, he thinks his Muslim faith requires him to follow this dictate: “Allah’s Messenger said, ‘Cut the moustaches short and leave the beard (as it is).’ ”

Meanwhile, most coverage references last summer's 5-4 decision in a different religious liberty case — the high-profile Hobby Lobby decision.

AP put it this way:

The court's decision in a case about religious liberty stands in contrast to the Hobby Lobby case that bitterly divided the justices in June over whether family-owned corporations could mount religious objections to paying for women's contraceptives under the health care overhaul.

The Post also contrasted the cases:

But in the recent case, brought by inmate Gregory Houston Holt, practically all religious and public-interest groups were united in backing the prisoner, and the court’s decision was unanimous.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in the minority in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, explained what she found different between the cases in a concurring opinion.
Unlike with the objecting business owners who did not want to provide employees with contraceptives that violated the owners’ religious beliefs, Ginsburg said accommodating Holt’s request “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.”

The Hobby Lobby background certainly seems relevant to the latest case.

But the Los Angeles Times offers a different twist on that angle:

The religious-liberties case of Holt vs. Hobbs drew attention mostly because it followed last year's contentious dispute involving the Hobby Lobby stores and their refusal to provide a full range of contraceptives to their female employees.

So, the beard case wouldn't have made headlines except for the Hobby Lobby case? Is that what the Los Angeles Times is saying? And where is the attribution?

Personally, as one who believes in freedom of religion, I would have paid attention to the beard case either way.

Over at the SCOTUSBlog, editor/reporter Amy Howe says what the Los Angeles Times was trying to say — if I understand correctly — in a much better way:

It’s an interesting case, but it drew even more attention because of the close parallels to last year’s high-profile decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the challenge to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that businesses provide their female employees with health insurance that includes access to birth control. Would a Muslim inmate serving a life sentence for slitting his ex-girlfriend’s throat fare as well with the Roberts Court as the devout Christian family that owns Hobby Lobby and believed that obeying the ACA’s birth-control mandate would cause them to violate their religious beliefs?

It's all about that beard. Maybe.

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