Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty joins Supreme Court brief in Holt v. Hobbs

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
October 7, 2014

Contact: Cherilyn Crowe | Phone: 202-544-4226 |Cell: 202-603-1663 |ccrowe@BJConline.org

WASHINGTON — In a case heard at the U.S. Supreme Court today, a Baptist group is defending a Muslim prisoner’s right to exercise his religious belief by adhering to certain religious grooming standards.

The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (BJC) joined the American Jewish Committee and other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the religious rights of Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), a practicing Muslim serving a life sentence in Arkansas. Holt says he has a religious obligation to maintain a beard, but the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) has a policy prohibiting facial hair other than neatly trimmed mustaches. It does allow one-quarter-inch beards for inmates with a diagnosed dermatological medical condition.

Holt says the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects his right to have a religiously mandated beard while incarcerated.

RLUIPA, which became federal law in 2000, was designed to protect the religious freedom of prisoners and other persons in government custody, as well as protect religious freedom in the context of zoning and other land use laws. The law provides that government may substantially burden the exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that it has used the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest. The BJC led a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties groups in supporting RLUIPA, and a unanimous Congress enacted the measure.

K. Hollyn Hollman, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty, said this case demonstrates the need for RLUIPA. “Prison officials undoubtedly have an interest in maintaining security — and that interest affects every aspect of a prisoner’s life,” Hollman said. “RLUIPA, however, was designed to prevent overly broad or exaggerated security claims that would unduly restrict the religious liberty of prisoners. Here, the state has failed to show how accommodating religion will undermine the state’s interests.”

While prison officials have a compelling interest in maintaining security generally, the question is whether their refusal to allow a religious exception for Holt’s requested beard is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The ADC denied Holt’s request to grow a one-half-inch beard, saying an exemption to its policy could create security issues. However, it only presented hypothetical security concerns and did not show that an exception for Holt would undermine security, despite the fact that he has been allowed to maintain a one-half-inch beard since winning a preliminary injunction in October 2011.

The brief explains that the ADC’s medical exemption demonstrates that a less restrictive facial hair policy is feasible within the prison’s facilities. “Part of RLUIPA’s purpose is to elevate religious needs to a similar level as other considerations,” according to the brief. “In light of the high degree of protection that RLUIPA gives to inmates’ religious rights, it is illogical for the same institution to provide an almost identical accommodation for medical reasons, while denying that same accommodation for religious purposes.”

The Supreme Court recognized RLUIPA as a permissible accommodation of religion in Cutter v. Wilkinson (2005) that provides “heightened protection” for religious exercise, allowing prisoners to seek religious accommodations under the same standard as the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).

The Supreme Court decision in the case of Holt v. Hobbs is expected before June 2015. The BJC’s brief is available at www.BJConline.org/HoltvHobbs.

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The Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty is a 78-year-old, Washington, D.C.-based religious liberty organization that works to defend and extend God-given religious liberty for all, bringing a uniquely Baptist witness to the principle that religion must be freely exercised, neither advanced nor inhibited by government. The BJC has filed amicus curiae briefs in more than 100 cases in the courts, including most of the U.S. Supreme Court’s cases dealing with religious liberty.