SCOTUS up angle1Written by Don Byrd

The Baptist Joint Committee has joined the American Jewish Committee and other religious liberty advocates in filing a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Holt v. Hobbs. The case involves a Muslim inmate denied by the Arkansas Department of Corrections (ADC) the right to wear a beard – even just a half-inch in length – as prescribed by his religious beliefs. Citing the state’s lack of adequate justification for this denial as required by law, the BJC’s brief urges the Court to find for the inmate.

One reason Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was to address the problem of religious discrimination in our nation’s prisons. Specifically, where inmates face a substantial burden on their religious exercise, RLUIPA requires officials to demonstrate why the burden is necessary to achieve a compelling government interest.

In the context of prison regulations, courts afford some deference to state officials due to the obvious concerns for safety and order in maintaining a facility of often dangerous criminals. However, the brief argues, the state must do more than just utter the words “safety” and “security” to meet their burden in depriving an inmate of his religious exercise rights. Because Arkansas “barely lifted a finger” to support its claim, the BJC, AJC and others signing this brief maintain Holt v. Hobbs is an “extreme example” and a “relatively easy case.”

Here is a snippet from the brief, which you can read here.

ADC must show that an exemption for Mr. Muhammad would undermine security at his facility . . . Here, ADC has provided no such evidence, despite the fact that Mr. Muhammad has been able to maintain a one-half-inch beard since October 2011. If Mr. Muhammad’s religious exemption posed a threat to prison security, it seems logical that ADC would be able to cite examples illustrating that over the past two and a half years Mr. Muhammad’s beard had made the Cummins Unit or Varner Unit more dangerous. Yet, as the record below further demonstrates, ADC has failed to proffer any, let alone substantial, evidence supporting its claims that granting Mr. Muhammad an exemption to the No Beard Policy would in fact undermine a compelling state interest.

Surely, RLUIPA requires ADC to do more than simply say the magic words—safety and security of inmates and staff—in order to carry its statutory burden of persuasion. Yet under ADC’s theory of RLUIPA, the government need only make such bare assertions…

Visit the BJC’s resource page for Holt v. Hobbs here. A press release announcing the filing is here.