SCOTUS roofWritten by Don Byrd

In a unanimous decision released today in the case of Holt v. Hobbs, the U.S. Supreme Court held that a grooming policy of the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the religious liberty rights of an inmate in that it prohibited him from growing a 1/2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) requires the state to establish that such a burden on the plaintiff’s religious exercise is necessary to address legitimate safety concerns and Arkansas failed to meet that standard, according to the Court’s ruling. The decision reverses lower court rulings dismissing the inmate’s claims.

See below for details and highlights from the opinion. Also, see the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on Holt v. Hobbs for more information. In a brief filed with the Court, the BJC defended the prisoner’s rights to follow the grooming standards dictated by his religious beliefs.

Justice Alito wrote the unanimous opinion, with Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor offering concurring opinions.

He emphasized first that the District Court, which previously rejected the inmate’s challenge, failed to read RLUIPA correctly, and therefore failed to recognize that he met his initial burden under RLUIPA: demonstrating that the regulation substantially burdens his religious exercise. RLUIPA, Alito wrote, does not require that the religious exercise in question is “compelled” by his faith; nor is RLUIPA satisfied merely because he is allowed other religious outlets, such as a prayer rug and religious diet. Furthermore, the law applies even if the inmate’s beliefs are “idiosyncratic.”

The plaintiff having met his initial burden, Justice Alito next found that the state failed to demonstrate that the burden was necessary to achieve the compelling safety interests of limiting contraband in prisons, and facilitating prisoner identification. While courts should respect the expertise of prison officials in evaluating their regulations, those regulations are not entitled to “unquestioning deference,” Alito wrote.

We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is hard to take seriously. As noted, the Magistrate Judge observed that it was “almost preposterous to think that [petitioner] could hide contraband” in the short beard he had grown at the time of the evidentiary hearing.  An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1⁄2-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item from falling out. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his head.

Even if the Department could make that showing, its contraband argument would still fail because the Department cannot show that forbidding very short beards is the least restrictive means of preventing the concealment of contraband. . . . The Department failed to establish that it could not satisfy its security concerns by simply searching petitioner’s beard. The Department already searches prisoners’ hair and clothing, and it presumably examines the 1⁄4-inch beards of inmates with dermatological conditions. It has offered no sound reason why hair, clothing, and 1⁄4-inch beards can be searched but 1⁄2-inch beards cannot.

Alito went on to reject the state’s argument that the grooming policy is required for identification purposes, noting that multiple photographs can be and are taken of the inmates, shaved and unshaved, and that inmates are capable of changing their appearance in even more dramatic ways (like shaving their heads, for example) that are not barred by the grooming policy.

Lastly, the Court’s opinion advises that some comparison to other prisons is appropriate:

That so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security suggests that the Department could satisfy its security concerns through a means less restrictive than denying petitioner the exemption he seeks.

We do not suggest that RLUIPA requires a prison to grant a particular religious exemption as soon as a few other jurisdictions do so. But when so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the Department failed to make that showing here.

In her very brief concurring opinion, Justice Ginsburg explained why she ruled in favor of the plaintiff in this case and against the plaintiff in the controversial Hobby Lobby case.

Unlike the exemption this Court approved in [Hobby Lobby], accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.

Justice Sotomayor wrote separately to emphasize her understanding of the deference due to prison officials.

I do not understand the Court’s opinion to preclude deferring to prison officials’ reasoning when that deference is due—that is, when prison officials offer a plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them. But the deference that must be “extend[ed to] the experience and expertise of prison administrators does not extend so far that prison officials may declare a compelling governmental interest by fiat.” Indeed, prison policies “ ‘grounded on mere speculation’ ” are exactly the ones that motivated Congress to enact RLUIPA.

You can read the opinion (pdf) here.