Less than a week after its decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court in Knight v. Thompson, No. 13-955 (2015), granted the petition for a writ of certiorari, vacated and remanded the Eleventh Circuit’s rejection of Native American prisoners’ claims challenging prison policy requiring all male inmates to have a “regular hair cut,” defined as having the hair “off neck and ears.” Although the Eleventh Circuit found that “long hair has great religious significance for many Native Americans,” it concluded, like most other courts, that the prison policy was in furtherance of a compelling safety interest. Here, there was evidence of (a) a prisoner escaping and drastically changing his appearance by cutting his hair; (b) reports that inmates have hidden ice picks, handcuff keys, wires, bolts, and other contraband items in their hair, including a razor which cut the hands of prison staff while searching an inmate’s hair; and (c) “an incident in which a black widow spider wove a nest in an inmate’s dreadlocks . . . .” The Eleventh Circuit observed that
Although the RLUIPA protects, to a substantial degree, the religious observances of institutionalized persons, it does not give courts carte blanche to second guess the reasoned judgments of prison officials.
According to the Eleventh Circuit, the “regular hair cut” policy was the least restrictive means of furthering the prison’s safety interest, because: “The RLUIPA asks only whether efficacious less restrictive measures actually exist, not whether the defendant considered alternatives to this policy. As already explained, the [prison] has shown that no efficacious less restrictive measures exist and has therefore carried its burden.” The Eleventh Circuit’s decision is available here. The Supreme Court, in its January 26, 2015 Order List (available here), granted the prisoners’ petition for a writ of certiorari, vacated and remanded the decision back to the Eleventh Circuit “for further consideration in light of Holt v. Hobbs” in which the Court refused to blindly defer to prison policy based on the specific facts of the case. We previously reported on Holt v. Hobbs and the impact it may have on local governments defending zoning decisions involving religious uses (post available here). Could this be the first of many post Hobbs decisions trimming the deference usually afforded local governments in preserving public health and safety?