WASHINGTON, DC — In a strong endorsement of religious liberty, the United States Supreme Court has unanimously held that the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the rights of a Muslim prisoner by refusing to allow him to grow a short beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. The Court’s decision in Holt v. Hobbs held that the prison policy forbidding beards for religious reasons violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal law requiring that prison policies that substantially burden a prisoner’s exercise of religion be supported by a compelling interest.
The Rutherford Institute, which was instrumental in the drafting and enactment of RLUIPA in 2000, filed an amicus brief in support of the prisoner’s First Amendment rights, noting that prison authorities failed to consider other ways to maintain prison safety that would accommodate the religious exercise of prisoners.
“At one time, prisoners were considered ‘slaves of the state,’ having forfeited their basic constitutional rights by engaging in criminal activity. Thankfully, a growing concern for how we treat ‘the least of these’ has ensured that prisoners are afforded some basic constitutional protections, even while the debate over prisoners’ rights—whether it pertains to religious freedom, the right to vote, or the right to bodily integrity—rages on,” said John W. Whitehead, president of The Rutherford Institute and author of A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State. “At a time when America’s prison population is growing, laws criminalizing the most mundane activities are on the rise, states have a financial incentive to keep private prisons at capacity, and the courts are inclined to side with law enforcement in matters of security—no matter how questionable the claim or minimal the accommodation, it is in all of our best interests to ensure that those incarcerated are treated as we ourselves would want to be treated if the tables were turned: with dignity, decency and compassion.”
Gregory Holt is a prisoner assigned to a prison within the Arkansas Department of Correction (“ADC”). One essential tenet of Holt’s Salafi Muslim faith is to follow the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad as collected in the hadith. This includes the requirement to “keep the mustaches short [but] leave the beard as it is.” The ADC grooming policy, however, prohibits prisoners from growing beards, although it does allow beards to be maintained by prisoners with diagnosed dermatological conditions. After Holt’s request for an exemption from the no-beards rule was denied by prison officials, he brought a lawsuit alleging that application of the rule to him violated RLUIPA and seeking an order that he be allowed to grow and maintain a one-half inch beard.
At a court hearing, prison officials asserted their belief that the no-beard rule was needed to protect prison security because inmates could hide contraband in a one-half inch beard, although they were unable to provide any specific examples. Accepting this testimony and deferring to the judgment of these prison officials, the lower courts ruled that officials had demonstrated a “compelling” interest for the no-beard rule and that the rule was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, thereby satisfying the strict scrutiny test required by RLUIPA. The Supreme Court granted Holt’s request to review the case and resolve a conflict in the decisions of federal courts, most of which have ruled that prison no-beard policies violate the rights of Muslim prisoners under RLUIPA.
In its amicus brief supporting Holt, Rutherford Institute attorneys argued that the security concerns of ADC are largely illusory, as shown by the experience of more than forty prison systems that have grooming policies without express restrictions on beards, or have provisions for religious exceptions. Affiliate attorneys Anand Agneshwar, Carl S. Nadler and Anna K. Thompson of Arnold & Porter, LLP, assisted The Rutherford Institute in advancing the arguments in the amicus brief before the Supreme Court.