Scalia on Muslim Beard Case: “Religious Beliefs Aren’t Reasonable”

On Tuesday the Supreme Court heard arguments in Holt v. Hobbs, a case about whether a prisoner in Arkansas has the right to grow a ½-inch beard for religious reasons. The media commentary has generally focused, for good reason, on the absurdity of the government’s assertion that a ½-inch beard could be used to hide contraband.

But one of the more interesting threads of the oral argument was Justice Scalia’s assertion that religious directives are “categorical” and not open to a reasonableness analysis. In the first few moments of argument, as plaintiff’s counsel was extolling his client’s reasonableness in asking for just a ½-inch beard to fulfill his religious obligations while satisfying the prison’s security concerns, Justice Scalia opined: “Well religious beliefs aren’t reasonable. I mean, religious beliefs are categorical. You know, it’s God tells you. It’s not a matter of being reasonable. God be reasonable? He’s supposed to have a full beard.”

For many, as Scalia recognizes, religious beliefs are categorical. That’s what makes it so difficult to draw a policy line determining at what point we are no longer willing to compromise with a belief that is categorical in nature. (And, by the way, what made it so ludicrous for the Court to rule in Hobby Lobby that the government could extend the non-profit accommodation process to for-profit companies without acknowledging the fact that many for-profit and non-profit companies would continue to object to any accommodation process at all on the grounds that complicity is a categorical sin).

But oddly in this oral argument Scalia seems to delight in this inability to reason with religious dictates. It’s as though it is supposed to make us less sympathetic towards the plaintiff that he is willing to compromise his religious beliefs in order to work with the state on meeting its security needs. The implication is that his very willingness to help reach a satisfactory accommodation is a sign that his dedication to his religion is insufficient to justify an accommodation. Is the idea that only the most inflexible and rigid should be deemed religiously committed enough to receive an accommodation–even though they are those least likely to accept being accommodated rather than absolutely exempted?

In other words, if we require purity of religious devotion we will increase the incentives for claimants to take extreme positions and make compromise accommodations less and less appealing, leaving us more polarized and fractured than ever. That’s a peculiar–and troubling–outcome if the purpose of religious accommodation is supposed to be to allow people of diverse beliefs to live harmoniously together.

  • Ned Carter

    We need to rewrite the Constitution to make Ethics an important part of the Supreme Court. If nothing else, this court has shown why ethics are important. If you do not have any you can do any thing, say any lie, and justify any position, no matter how contradictory to you own position the day or second before.

  • Steve Hammett

    Does this mean that Scalia now backs polygamy where all parties strongly and sincerely believe it is ordained by God?

  • jfigdor

    It’s also ridiculous to privilege people’s religious beliefs over people’s deepest held philosophical convictions. Why should one man be able to grow a beard because his religion says so, while another who wants to grow a beard because it reminds him of his time playing with his daughter, be denied? Just because one of them happens to justify it with a few thousand year old book?

  • GeniusPhx

    Scalia acknowledges god and that got tells people what it wants and we listen. Our govt is supposed to be secular. We can make no law respecting or touching religion. But Scalia is a religious fanatic, he actually believes there are devils around every corner. He may be reaching for a reason to turn this guy down because of his non christian faith, telling him its either full beard or no beard (and full beard is dangerous to staff).

  • Rmj

    Scalia betrays the attitude of the laity. Any priest, pastor, or theologian, if they are being honest, will readily admit “categorial” when it comes to religious beliefs means its unalterable until convenience says it should be.

    And I say that without the cynicism some may infer. Nothing in human thought is so categorical as to not be swayed by circumstances and conditions in the present. Church doctrine itself, be it Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Coptic, has changed over the centuries. Even now the Pope has convened a synod which is considering ways to at least sound less “categorical” on the issue of homosexuality.

    Everything is subject to interpretation and re-interpretation. If it wasn’t, the Church itself would have shattered into dust centuries ago.

  • fiona64

    Scalia wants his own religious beliefs enshrined in law, but says those of others are unreasonable?

    What a flaming hypocrite.

  • ChaoticWin

    This article doesn’t do a great job of conveying the context of the sentiment which Justice Scalia was expressing. In brief, he is acknowledging that there are going to be numerous lawsuits relating to the law passed in 2000, and instead of dealing with them “half inch by half inch,” he would rather deal with them all at once, “all or nothing.”

  • Murmur1

    Religious beliefs may not be based on reason, but neither is a rule that says a 1/2 inch beard can be used to hide contraband. Are the men in prison required to shave their heads?

  • Steve Karper

    rith winger , his son is priest in the mel gibson branch of the church.

    Why shouldnt people in prison be allowed reasonable beards

    But this is worse >- we try to rehabilitate people and as far as I know they are given only numbers to wear. This dehumanizes them. Guess what kind of name tag the people in the death / work camps in nazi geramny wore – tatoo numbers

  • Steve Karper

    lets change to about good pope francis again and the revolt of conservative catholcs against his intention to show that gays are part of gods creation etc

    The conservatives remind me of the ultran conservatives in the past that gave us the 1000 year dark ages. Some univ a few years ago studies what happened and said we would have had the inernet by 1600. Presumably most of the other miracles of technology eg modern medicine etc

    Sometimes I really wish we could have a place where really backwards looking people would congregate be happy re spouting to each other the same claptrap and wonder why no one else listens.

  • Jekyll

    When was the last time that Western Jurisprudence ever have anything to do with morality ?

  • Jekyll

    If pedophilia or incest were to become deeply held beliefs, would they given equal assertions ? The western world: devoid of any real humane rationale.

  • Ned Carter

    Ethics has nothing to do with morality.

  • Jekyll

    What defines ethics ? What is ethical behavior ? What is the conduct of ethical law ?

  • Ned Carter

    Ethics is doing as the law requires. To be clear I am talking about Judicial Ethics, which are required of all but these judges. It is a code of conduct and guidelines agreed upon by a conference and all federal judges must follow it. These people hold great power and it is important for them to be held to a high standard when it comes to what it is that influences their decisions. Judicial Ethics are a way to define the ways they must operate and interact with others.

  • Ned Carter

    You keep referring to the western world.. as if you are apart from it, and as if there are no bad things in the eastern world… which is fucking hilarious.