Hollman and coalition partners at Court

BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman speaks with coalition partners outside the U.S. Supreme Court after oral arguments in Holt v. Hobbs.

By Religion News Service and BJC Staff Reports

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments Oct. 7 over whether a Muslim prisoner can exercise his religious belief by adhering to certain religious grooming standards. The prisoner is getting support from a diverse group of religious organizations, including the Baptist Joint Committee.

Gregory Holt — known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad after his conversion to Islam — wants to grow a one-half-inch beard, which is allowed in the vast majority of state prison systems, but not the one where he is incarcerated: Arkansas.

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

The religious freedom of persons in government custody is protected by a legal standard set in RLUIPA, which became federal law in 2000. The BJC led a diverse coalition in supporting the bill.

During the arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to wonder how such a seemingly straightforward case came before the High Court.

“[Y]ou’re really just making your case too easy,” Roberts told Douglas Laycock, the First Amendment scholar arguing on Holt’s behalf. “You just say, ‘Well, we want to draw the line at half inch because that lets us win. And the next day someone’s going to be here with one inch.’” Roberts said the “legal difficulty” of the case cannot be avoided by asking for so little.

Laycock noted that a prisoner who wants a full beard will likely petition the Court someday, but that plaintiff is not before the Court. “So this case is only about half an inch.”

Later, Laycock said the Supreme Court must decide how much deference prison officials get when they decide to limit inmates’ religious observance. He reiterated RLUIPA’s strict standard that the Court must apply in answering that question: Does the beard rule serve a governmental “compelling interest” and does it represent the “least restrictive” burden on the prisoner’s religious rights to achieve the government’s goal?

The prison’s goal is security, explained David Curran, the Arkansas deputy attorney general who argued the case on behalf of the state’s Department of Correction. Prisoners can hide all kinds of contraband in even a short beard, he said. But he rested most of his case on the potential of prisoners to shave and confuse guards as to their true identities.

Holt, imprisoned for stabbing his former girlfriend in the chest and neck, has repeatedly stated his intention to harm public officials.

Despite his behavior in and out of prison, a diversity of interest groups wrote friend-of-the-court briefs in support of Holt’s case, including Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, and the American Jewish Committee, whose brief was joined by the Baptist Joint Committee. With Laycock, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty prepared Holt’s case in Holt v. Hobbs.

BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman noted that 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.”

A decision is expected before July 2015.

From the October 2014 Report From the Capital. Click here to read the next article.

Click here to read the entire magazine as a PDF document.

Read more on the case from BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman: RLUIPA case demonstrates need for balance between security and religion