The U.S. Supreme Court has scheduled argument in Holt v. Hobbs for October 7, 2014. The case has been drawing interest because it is the first major religion case of the Supreme Court’s new term, and comes shortly after the decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc.
Gregory Holt a/k/a Abdul Maalik Muhammad, who is serving a lifetime sentence in Arkansas for burglary and domestic battery, sued the Arkansas Department of Corrections and certain prison officials because they would not let him grow a beard in accordance with his Muslim faith. The Department cites state policy allowing only trimmed mustaches and one-quarter inch long 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. Holt alleges that the actions of the Department and prison officials have imposed a substantial burden on his sincerely held religious belief of growing a beard.
As a compromise, Holt proposed growing a half-inch beard and obtained temporary relief from the District Court to do so. Ultimately, however, the District Court concluded that the Department 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 U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed, finding that the Department 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. The Supreme Court granted Holt’s hand-written petition for a writ of certiorari (available here).
Local governments may want to follow the Supreme Court’s consideration of the Holt case, particularly its treatment of the “compelling interest” and “least restrictive means” components of RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. The case is drawing interest coming on the heels of the Supreme Court’s decision in Hobby Lobby. In considering whether the federal government’s requirement that employers provide contraceptive services under the Affordable Care Act violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the court in Hobby Lobby observed: “We do not doubt that cost may be an important factor in the least-restrictive-means analysis, but both RFRA and its sister statute, RLUIPA, may in some circumstances require the Government to expend additional funds to accommodate citizens' religious beliefs.” Could the Court require the Arkansas Department of Corrections to bear some additional expense to accommodate Holt’s religious beliefs? Might it arrange for a professional barber to trim Holt’s beard in such a way to meet the Department’s asserted interests? We’re particularly interested in how any accommodation in Holt’s case might be extended to land use issues.
To help you in following Holt, here are two recent, notable free exercise of religion prisoner cases.
- Holland v. Goord (2d Cir 2014): Prison officials substantially burdened Muslim inmate’s religious beliefs by forcing him to choose between drinking water during a three-hour window in the holy month of Ramadan – when Muslims must fast during the day – to provide a urine sample or confining him to keeplock. The officials did not allow the inmate to provide a urine sample after sunset, when his fast ended.
- Haight v. Thompson (6th Cir. 2014): Death-row inmates of the Native American Church allowed to proceed with RLUIPA claims concerning prison’s refusal to permit them to use sweat-lodge and consume buffalo meet at once-a-year powwow in accordance with their religious beliefs.