Gregory Houston Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad

Gregory Houston Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad

Case: Holt v. Hobbs, Decided January 20, 2015

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision that the Arkansas Department of Correction violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) when it prohibited a prisoner from growing a 1/2 inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.

The Court used the standard from the recent Hobby Lobby decision finding that the person challenging the government's action must meet the initial burden of 1) proving that his or her religious exercise is grounded in a sincerely held religious belief and 2) that the government's action substantially burdens his or her religious exercise.

The Holt court found that petitioner Gregory Holt (aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad), an Arkansas inmate and Muslim who wished to grow a beard but was prohibited from Arkansas rules that prohibit prisoners from growing beards unless they have a diagnosed skin condition in which case they may grow a 1/4 inch beard. Holt (aka Muhammad) had tried to work out a compromise between his beliefs that would not allow him to trim his beard at all and the Arkansas limitations by requesting opportunity to grow only a 1/2 inch beard.

Prison officials had argued that beards posed a safety risk because they could be used to hide contraband and could be shaved to disguise identity. Lower courts had dismissed Holt's claim finding that the Department of Correction had satisfied the burden of showing that the prohibition was the "least restrictive means" of furthering a "compelling security interest" and that the courts should defer to prison officials when it comes to security.

Justice Alito, writing for the majority, found that there were ways to accommodate the religious beliefs of Holt and protect security such as photographing prisoners both with beards and without them, and the Court further argued that contraband could just as easily be hidden in hair or a mustache.

Justice Alito's decision includes a useful primer on the Court's 1990 Employment Division v. Smith case which would uphold a law that could inadvertently adversely affect people of faith if it was neutral toward religion, and the attempt of Congress to rectify it through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which would require that government "shall not substantially burden a person's exercise of religion even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability," unless the government could show that the action was "in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest" and was "the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest."

In 1997, the Supreme Court found that Congress had exceeded its powers when it attempted to apply this rule to the states in Boerne v. Flores. RFRA still applied to Federal actions, but not state actions. After the Boerne decision, Congress used a different approach to the issue by invoking congressional authority under the Spending and Commerce Clauses when it passed RLUIPA to govern land use regulation and "institutionalized persons." In short, the RFRA test was extended to the states insofar as religious land use issues and prisons are concerned but not to other state-level limitations on free exercise of religion.

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor also filed concurring opinions. Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justice Sotomayor, wrote a 1-paragraph concurring opinion in which she drew a distinction between this case and the Hobby Lobby case, pointing out that while she supported the decision, accommodating Holt's beard, unlike accommodating Hobby Lobby's religious beliefs against providing insurance for certain forms of contraception, "would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief."

Justice Sotomayor also wrote a separate concurrence, agreeing with the decision, but wanted to emphasize that prison security remains a "compelling state interest" and that the Court should defer to the expertise of prison officials when it comes to safety and allow them to state their case. The reason she voted with the majority was that the prison officials had failed to "demonstrate why the less restrictive policies petitioner [Holt] identified in the course of the litigation were insufficient to achieve its compelling state interest."

The Court's full decision and the two concurring opinions are available at:

Click to access 13-6827_5h26.pdf


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