Tom Clyde: Properly licensed beards
January 23, 2015
So here we are again — Sundance. It’s that time of year when we are reminded that the world is a very strange place, filled with very strange people, all of whom are here, standing in the middle of a dark street, screaming at cell phones, and dressed in black from head to toe. Park City is not a normal place. Not at any time of year. But this time of year, we are abnormal in some very abnormal ways.
But while Park City stands out as being a little strange, it’s always good to be reminded that we are all strangers in a strange place. For example, I heard on the news the other day that the US Supreme Court has determined that an Arkansas state prison inmate has a constitutional right to grow a beard. It was a unanimous opinion. This court couldn’t agree to vacate a burning building unanimously. But they overturned both the trial court and a federal appeals court, which had ruled in favor of Arkansas, which prohibits prisoners from growing beards because they would hide contraband in them.
The Supremes were puzzled about what contraband could be hidden in a half-inch beard that could not be hidden in the hair on the top of the head, which is not regulated by the prison. It seems like razors in prison may pose more of a security risk than a beard. So the court said the prisoner’s religious beliefs that he should grow a beard were constitutionally protected, and that Arkansas was just plain stupid.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg (who has developed a weird cult following, where she is known as "Notorious RBG") wrote a concurring opinion pointing out that the court had used exactly the same logic to come to a different conclusion in the "Hobby Lobby" case. That held that employers were exempt from parts of the Affordable Care Act if they didn’t approve of their employees’ choices of birth control. She took umbrage that the male members of the court weren’t much concerned with pregnancy, but were not about to let prison wardens get in the way of growing a beard.
The part of all that that reminded me of how different things are here in Utah is that while there is a constitutional right to grow a beard in Arkansas prisons, there is no such right on the campus of BYU. Students who want to grow a beard at BYU are required to get a beard license. The school will only issue a beard license for three reasons — the student is in a theatrical production and it is required as part of the costume; a doctor approved by the university has found a medical necessity for a beard (think acute razor bumps); or the student is one of about four Muslims on campus.
The beard-licensing program was in the news recently because a couple of students had challenged it as being, I think the technical term is, "silly." There is, as far as I’ve been able to tell, no firm definition of "beard." The dividing line between advanced scruff and nascent beard is not clearly spelled out. To paraphrase another Supreme Court opinion, you can’t define a beard, but you know one when you see one. BYU apparently has people on the payroll for policing beards.
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But unless you are playing Brigham Young in a theatrical production, it’s pretty tough to get a beard license. They won’t take just any doctor’s certification that there is a medical necessity. In a lot of states, you can get a prescription for medical marijuana or Viagra from doctors who are so skilled they can make a diagnosis without ever meeting the patient. Not so with razor bumps. BYU requires a school-approved physician to make the examination. Beard-licensing is not a covered procedure under most insurance policies.
The other item of Utah distinctiveness that caught my eye was that we eat 241 percent more Hawaiian food than the rest of the United States. We also eat 54 percent more hot dogs than the national norm. The poll failed to ask about Jell-O. But we eat almost as much Hawaiian food as people who live in Hawaii.
I guess it makes sense if the survey included all of the Polynesian cultures. We have a large South Pacific Islander population in Utah, though it doesn’t seem big enough to account for a 241 percent spike in "Hawaiian" food. And I’m guessing that traditional Tongan food is different from Hawaiian. Other than pineapple, I’m not sure I know what Hawaiian food is, so I might be eating it without recognizing it. But somebody out there is packing it away like there is no tomorrow. And you can bet they didn’t have to get a license to do it.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.