Holt v. Hobbs


A Muslim inmate in Arkansas, Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), requested to grow a one-half-inch beard in accordance with his faith despite prison policies prohibiting beards.

BJC joined the American Jewish Committee and other organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief defending the religious rights of Holt.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) protects Holt’s right to have a religiously-mandated beard while incarcerated, especially considering that the prison allows one-quarter-inch beards for inmates with a diagnosed dermatological medical condition.

While prison officials have a compelling interest in maintaining security, the question is whether their refusal to allow a religious exemption for Holt’s requested beard is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. The brief explains that the prison’s medical exemption demonstrates that a less restrictive facial hair policy is feasible within the prison’s facilities without threatening security.

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. RLUIPA provides that government may substantially burden the exercise of religion only if it demonstrates that it has used the least restrictive means to further its compelling interest in doing so. BJC led a diverse coalition of religious and civil liberties groups in supporting RLUIPA, and a unanimous Congress enacted the measure.

“The government has a responsibility to ensure incarcerated individuals can freely exercise their religion if there is no contrary compelling governmental interest at stake,” said BJC General Counsel Holly Hollman. “This case demonstrates the need for RLUIPA to make sure religious rights are protected and taken seriously.”

A unanimous Supreme Court agreed on January 20, 2015, affirming RLUIPA and agreeing with the principles outlined in the brief signed by BJC.

“Everyone’s religious liberty is precious, but that of incarcerated persons is particularly fragile,” said Brent Walker, BJC’s executive director at the time. “Both RLUIPA and the Court’s opinion appropriately balance that right with the need of penal institutions to preserve prison safety and security.”

The Court’s decision said Holt met all of the requirements of RLUIPA, finding that “the religious exercise at issue is the growing of a beard” and that “the Department’s grooming policy substantially burdened that exercise of religion.”

While the Court recognized the interest in having a no-beards policy to prevent prisoners from hiding contraband, the decision said that “the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a ½-inch beard is hard to take seriously,” especially since prisoners are not required to have shaved heads or crew cuts and because one-quarter-inch beards for dermatological conditions are allowed.

From the Brief
“Part of RLUIPA’s purpose is to elevate religious needs to a similar level as other considerations….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.”

“Surely, RLUIPA requires ADC [Arkansas Department of Correction] 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.…”

“In this case, it would be especially difficult for ADC to argue that it considered and reasonably rejected one particular alternative — allowing inmates to grow a one-quarter-inch beard — because ADC already provides exactly this accommodation to inmates with certain medical conditions. This medical exemption makes it extremely difficult for ADC to show that its No Beard Policy for religious inmates is truly the least restrictive means of furthering its security interests.”


Friend-of-the-court brief (PDF)
Signed by BJC, the American Jewish Committee, Union for Reform Judaism, Central Conference of American Rabbis and Women of Reform Judaism

Details and highlights from the Supreme Court decision
News update from January 20, 2015

Following Supreme Court Ruling, Arkansas Prisons Change Beard Rules
News update from February 6, 2015

RLUIPA case demonstrates need for balance between security and religion
By Holly Hollman (October 2014)

Recap of the oral arguments
News update from October 7, 2014