Although not a land use case, a pending prisoner’s RLUIPA claim bears following because it may ultimately shed some light on how the U.S. Supreme Court interprets “compelling interest” and “least restrictive means.”

Gregory Holt a/k/a Abdul Maalik Muhammad is serving a lifetime sentence in Arkansas for burglary and domestic battery.  Mr. Holt seeks to grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith, but Arkansas prison officials prohibited him from doing so, citing to state policy that allows only trimmed mustaches and ¼ inch beards for inmates with diagnosed dermatologic problems.  The purpose of the state policy is to promote “health and hygiene,” to minimize “opportunities for disguise” and to prevent the concealment of contraband.

Mr. Holt is suing under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, alleging that prohibiting him from growing a beard substantially burdens his religious exercise for which the prison has no compelling interest.  Mr. Holt sought to grow a ½ inch beard as a compromise and obtained temporary relief from the District Court to do so.  The District Court later concluded, however, that the Arkansas Department of Corrections had a compelling penological interest to uphold its prohibition on beards because (1) it helped prevent inmates from concealing contraband, drugs, or weapons, (2) an inmate who grew a beard could change his appearance by shaving; and (3) affording special privileges to some inmates but not others could cause them to become potential targets.

The United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit found that the Arkansas Department of Corrections and prison officials “met their burden under RLUIPA of establishing that [the Arkansas Department of Corrections’] grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling penological interest.”  The Eighth Circuit’s decision in Holt v. Hobbs (8th Cir. 2013) is available here.

On September 27, 2013, Mr. Holt petitioned the United States Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Eighth Circuit.  In the petition, Mr. Holt notes other court decisions that have stricken prison policies banning beards.   The handwritten petition is available here.  The Arkansas Department of Corrections opposed Mr. Holt’s petition by stating that weapons, such as homemade darts, and cellphone SIM cards could be concealed in ½ inch beards.  They also stated they did not wish to monitor the lengths of inmates’ beards.

The Supreme Court agreed to consider the case, limited to the following issues:

(1) whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ no beard growing policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) or the First Amendment; and

(2) whether a ½ inch beard would satisfy the security goals sought by the policy.

Although the Supreme Court has never considered a RLUIPA case in the land use context, Holt v. Hobbs may offer guidance as to the high court’s treatment of the “compelling interest” and “lease restrictive means” components of the substantial burden provision.