A unanimous Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas, Gregory H. Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), can grow a short beard for religious reasons. The case is The case is Holt v. Hobbs, 13-6827. It represents a trifecta loss. The federal magistrate (Joe J. Volpe), the district court judge (Brian S. Miller), and the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit (Judges Bye, Arnold, and Shepherd) all ruled against Holt only to see a unanimous Supreme Court reject their reasoning. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor both wrote concurring opinions.
Notably, Magistrate Volpe recommended denial of this claim even though he stated in the hearing: “I look at your particular circumstance and I say, you know, it’s almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard.”
Holt cited the hadiths, accounts of the acts or statements of the Muhammad and the attributed statement of Muhammad that Muslims are commanded to “cut the mustaches short and leave the beard.”
More than 40 state prison systems allow short beards and most allow longer ones. States like Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia bar beards except under limited conditions.
Holt challenged the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) grooming policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a)(1)-(2), and sought a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order. He claimed that one of his fundamentalist Muslim beliefs was that he must grow a beard and that the prison burdened his ability to practice his religion though a grooming policy, which allowed trimmed mustaches but no other facial hair. The policy allowed quarter-inch beards only for a diagnosed dermatological problem. Mr. Holt sought permission to maintain a half- inch beard –insisting that it would balance his religious beliefs with ADC’s security needs. The prison insisted that it had accommodated Holt in a variety of ways including a prayer rug and a list of distributors of Islamic material, corresponding with a religious advisor, allowing to maintain the required diet and observe religious holidays. Prison officials also claimed the grooming policy was necessary to further ADC’s interest in prison security.
Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., wrote the opinion. He was notably the the author of the majority opinion in Hobby Lobby, where a sharply divided Court ruled in favor of the religious rights of a private business in a dispute under the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare.
Alito rejected the claims of prison security in the denial of a beard. Alito applied the same legal test that used in June in the Hobby Lobby case in finding that the facts “easily satisfied” the requirement of showing that the ban on beards burdened his religious practices. While officials claimed that even short beards can conceal “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts” or SIM cards, the Court did not buy it. Alito found that security “would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a half-inch beard is hard to take seriously . . . An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a half-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.” He further noted that, despite this stated concern, Arkansas prisons do not require “shaved heads or short crew cuts.”
The case is an important reaffirmation of the Hobby Lobby reasoning, this time with all nine justices signing on. The opinion is replete with citations to the earlier case. RLUIPA is the sister statute to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), which was applied in Hobby Lobby. The opinion cuts back a bit on the excessive deference afforded to prisons in past cases, though only with regard to religious practices:
RLUIPA, like RFRA, “makes clear that it is the obligation of the courts to consider whether exceptions are required under the test set forth by Congress.” . . . That test requires the Department not merely to explain why it denied the exemption but to prove that denying the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Prison officials are experts in running prisons and evaluating the likely effects of altering prison rules, and courts should respect that expertise. But that respect does not justify the abdication of the responsibility, conferred by Congress, to apply RLUIPA’s rigorous standard. And without a degree of deference that is tantamount to unquestioning acceptance, it is hard to swallow the argument that denying petitioner a 1⁄2-inch beard actually furthers the Department’s interest in rooting out contraband.
Eighteen states supported Arkansas and all states will now have to meet this more demanding standard in such conflicts.
Holt is by no means a sympathetic character, but that is not relevant to the basis for his constitutional claim. He is serving a life sentence for a vicious assault on his ex-girlfriend in which he slit her throat and stabbed her in the chest. He has also threatened to “wage jihad” against various people.
This is an impressive win for University of Virginia School of Law Professor Douglas Laycock and his legal team in their representation of Holt.
Here is the opinion: Holt v. Hobbs, 13-6827.