Breakdown: Unanimous Supreme Court backs prisoner in religious beard case

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Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Portion of an Becket Fund for Religious Liberty's Holt v Hobbs infographic. Becket Fund is representing the prisoner, Gregory Holt, in this case.

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided in favor a prisoner’s religious liberty. The Court ruled that the state of Arkansas must allow a prisoner to grow a beard if doing so is a requirement of his faith.

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty's Holt v Hobbs info-graphic. Becket Fund is representing the prisoner, Gregory Holt, in this case.

Becket Fund for Religious Liberty’s Holt v Hobbs info-graphic. Becket Fund is representing the prisoner, Gregory Holt, in this case.

How we got here

Since 2011, Gregory Holt, an adherent of Salafi Islam, has asked for an exemption to an Arkansas prison regulation barring facial hair. The prison argued that the importance of uniform appearances among inmates, hygiene issues, and safety concerns in maintaining its ban on beards.

After being denied in federal district court and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, Holt submitted a handwritten appeal to Justice Samuel Alito, who oversees appeals from that circuit. Alito brought the appeal to the full Supreme Court, who voted to hear the case in May.

In October, Holt got his day in court. His counsel (from the Becket Fund) argued that the prison’s policy runs afoul of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a follow-up to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (cited heavily in the Hobby Lobby case). Since the prison allows beards for medical reasons, the decision to refuse Holt’s religious request is arbitrary, and therefore unacceptable.

Holt had precedent in his favor. In 2005’s Cutter v. Wilkinson, the Court unanimously held that RLUIPA requires prisons accepting federal money to make reasonable accommodations for inmates’ religious practices.

The justices were very skeptical of Arkansas’ argument that a half-inch beard is unreasonable, particularly since it allows beards for some prisoners already. The state faced tough questions and had very few answers that seemed to satisfy the court.

Today’s decision, penned by Alito, made it clear that the justices were unconvinced and wanted to make it clear that the prison had violated prisoner’s rights under the RLUIPA.

What the court decided

Under the RLUIPA, a prisoner needs to demonstrate two facts:

1) His religious exercise must be grounded in a sincerely held religious belief. This was never in dispute.

2) The government’s action substantially burdens his religious exercise.

This second requirement was the key issue in the case: did barring a half-inch beard substantially burden the prisoner’s religious exercise?

The Court rejected a series of arguments offered by the prison.

Argument 1: the beard policy didn’t burden Holt because he could still practice his religion in other ways.

Argument 2: it was a small issue because Holt said that he would still get “credit” in his religion for at least attempting to grow his beard.

Argument 3: Holt testified that not all Muslims believe that men must grow beards.

The Court rejected each of these arguments. Just because a prisoner has many ways to exercise his religion does not mean that a prison can restrict some ways. RLUIPA, the Court replied, applies to all exercises of religion. These religious exercises do not need to be shared by everyone in a faith. It could be something held by a small sect or even be “idiosyncratic”.

Then the Court went further to drive home the correct interpretation of the RLUIPA. Even if the prison could argue that it needed to restrict a prisoner’s religious exercise, it would further need to show that this was “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling governmental interest” (an issue in the Hobby Lobby case). Why, the Court asked, is it necessary to shave a beard so that he can’t hide contraband when it is acceptable for a prisoner’s hair to be long? If the prison needs a clean-shaven picture for an ID, why can’t they just take two pictures—one clean-shaven and one bearded? The prison had no satisfying answers to these and other questions from the court.

Bottom line: The unanimous decision made it clear that the religious liberties of prisoners must be protected. A prison must be able to show that restricting a religious exercise is necessary and is the least restrictive way to achieve a prison’s need.

Portions of this post were adapted from Daniel Bennett’s previous posts on this case. Bennett, PhD, researches the conservative legal movement. He is an assistant professor of political science at Eastern Kentucky University. You can follow him on twitter at @BennettDaniel.

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