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U.S. Supreme Court: inmate has religious freedom to grow beard Legal Corner

by DOC’s policy that would not allow an inmate to grow a beard as required by his religion. Te case, Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. ____ (2015), was filed by Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt, a prac- ticing Muslim also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, who alleged that the DOC’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition, violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA). Te Supreme Court, in a unani- mous decision, reversed the decision of the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals and held that DOC’s grooming policy violated RLUIPA insofar as it prevents an inmate from growing a half- inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Holt objected on religious grounds to DOC’s grooming policy


which provided that “[n]o inmates will be permitted to wear fa- cial hair other than a neatly trimmed mustache that does not ex- tend beyond the corner of the mouth or over the lip.” Te policy made no exception for inmates who objected on religious grounds but did contain an exemption for prisoners with medical needs: “Medical staff may prescribe that inmates with a diagnosed derma- tological problem may wear facial hair no longer than one quarter of an inch.” Te policy provided, “[f]ailure to abide by [the De- partment’s] grooming standards is grounds for disciplinary action.” Holt asked for permission to grow a beard and, although he

believed that his faith required him not to trim his beard at all, he proposed a “compromise” under which he would grow only a half-inch beard. DOC denied his request. Holt then filed a pro se complaint in Federal District Court challenging the grooming policy under RLUIPA. Te complaint was dismissed for failure to state a claim on which relief could be granted. Te Magistrate Judge emphasized in his opinion that “the prison officials are en- titled to deference” and that the grooming policy allowed the inmate Holt to exercise his religion in other ways including pray- ing on a prayer rug, maintaining the diet required by his faith, and observing religious holidays. Te District Court adopted the Magistrate Judge’s recommendation and the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed holding that the DOC had satis- fied its burden showing that the grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling security interests. Te U.S. Supreme Court reversed that decision. RLUIPA protects “any exercise of religion, whether or not com- pelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” and a prisoner’s request for an accommodation must be sincerely based on a religious belief and not some other motivation. Holt’s request to exercise his religion was for the growing of a beard that he believes is a dictate of his faith. In addition to showing that his exercise of religion was related to a sincerely held religious belief, petitioner Holt also had the burden under RLUIPA of establishing that DOC’s grooming policy substantially burdened that exercise of religion. Te Court stated that the petitioner had met that burden, thus shifting the bur- den of proof to DOC to show that its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a half-inch beard “(1) was in furtherance of a compelling


n an important decision that could affect county jail in- mate grooming policies, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in December 2014 that an Arkansas Department of Correc- tion (DOC) prison inmate’s religious beliefs were violated

governmental interest; and (2) was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” DOC argued that the grooming policy represented the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling in- terest in prison safety and security. DOC claims that safety and security were furthered by its policy in two spe- cific ways. Te first claim by DOC was that the no-beard policy prevents pris- oners from hiding contraband. DOC made the argument that prisoners may use their beards to conceal all manner of prohibited items, including razors, needles, drugs and cell phone SIM cards. Te Court disagreed with that argument, noting that the DOC did not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts as they did beards and also that forbidding short beards was not the least restrictive means of preventing the concealment of contraband. Te Court stated that DOC could satisfy its secu- rity concerns by simply searching inmates’ beards as they already conduct searches of prisoners’ hair and clothing. DOC’s second claim was that its grooming policy would pre-

JONATHAN GREER General Counsel

vent prisoners from disguising their identities. While the Court agreed that prisons have a compelling interest in the quick and reliable identification of prisoners, the Court disagreed that the no-beards policy furthered that interest by the fact that DOC already has a policy of photographing a prisoner both when he enters the prison and when his “appearance changes at any time during his incarceration,” which would aid in identification. Finally, the Court emphasized that although RLUIPA provides substantial protection for the religious exercise of institutional- ized person, it also affords jail officials the ability to maintain security in three (3) key ways:

• •

In applying the RLUIPA standard, courts should not blind themselves to the fact that the analysis is con- ducted in the prison setting;

If an institution suspects that an inmate is using religious activity to cloak illegal activity, “prison officials may appro- priately question whether a prisoner’s religiosity, asserted as the basis for a requested accommodation, is authentic.”; and

• Even if a claimant’s religious belief is sincere, an institution might be entitled to withdraw an accommodation if the claimant abuses the exemption in a manner that under- mines the prison’s compelling interests.

County sheriffs and jail administrators should remain cogni-

zant of these issues when formulating any policies potentially af- fecting the exercise of religious beliefs of inmates.

Editor’s Note: AAC Legal Counsel Jonathan Greer passed away April 18, 2015.


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