Holt v Hobbs: Jail’s Beard Policy Violates Rights of Muslim Prisoner
In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court recently held that, Holt v Hobbs, the Arkansas Department of Correction’s “no beard” policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA).
The decision extensively cites Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., confirming that the Roberts Court intends to protect religious freedom, whether it belongs to closely held corporations or a devout Muslim prisoner.
The Facts of the Case
Gregory H. Holt is an Arkansas inmate serving a life sentence who sought to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his sincerely held religious beliefs. However, with the exception of inmates with diagnosed skin conditions, the Arkansas Department of Correction prohibits its prisoners from growing beards. Holt sought a religious exemption and, although he believes that his faith requires him not to trim his beard at all, he proposed a compromise under which he would be allowed to maintain a 1⁄2-inch beard.
The Arkansas Department of Correction rejected the compromise and Holt filed suit. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court decision dismissing the suit. It held that Arizona had satisfied its burden of showing that the grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling security interests, and emphasized that courts should defer to prison officials on matters of security.
The Legal Background
RLUIPA specifically prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution, unless the government can show it is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest” and “is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Prior to the Court’s decision, the circuits were split as to the proper interpretation of RLUIPA’s compelling interest standard as it applies to prison regulations.
The Supreme Court’s Decision
In reaching its decision, the Court rejected Arkansas’s argument that it needs to ban beards in order to maintain safety in its prisons, finding that it failed to “show that enforcing its beard prohibition against petitioner furthers its compelling interests in preventing prisoners from hiding contraband and disguising their identities.”
The Court particularly took issue with the notion that the ban was necessary to prevent inmates from hiding contraband. “While the Department has a compelling interest in regulating contraband, its argument that this interest is compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is unavailing, especially given the difficulty of hiding contraband in such a short beard and the lack of a corresponding policy regulating the length of hair on the head,” Justice Samuel Alito explained.
The Court further noted that less restrictive means were likely possible, given that the vast majority of states and the federal government allow inmates to grow ½-inch beards, either for any reason or based on religious exemptions.
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