Does a prison’s grooming policy, which prohibits all beards except for quarter-inch beards for certain medical reasons, violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by prohibiting an inmate from growing a half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs?
In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) with the intent to provide protection for the free exercise of religion in various contexts, including prisons and jails. In this case, the Supreme Court will consider whether a prison grooming policy prohibiting a half-inch beard grown in accordance with a prisoner’s religious beliefs, violates RLUIPA. Additionally, the Court will have the opportunity to determine the level of deference courts should give prison officials when considering whether a prison policy that substantially burdens inmates’ exercise of religion furthers a compelling governmental interest and is the least restrictive means available. The resolution of this case may impact the balance between the rights of prisoners to practice their religion freely while incarcerated and the government’s interest in prison safety.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
- Whether the Arkansas Department of Corrections’ no beard grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).
- Whether a ½ inch beard would satisfy the security goals sought by the policy.
- Whether the no beard grooming policy violates Petitioner’s First Amendment right to practice Islam as he believes it is supposed to be practiced by the wearing of the beard.
- That the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit has decided that the no beard grooming policy does not violate the RLUIPA, but this Court should decide the matter since it has not done so and should rule whether grooming policies of any Department of Correction that do not allow for a religious exception exemption are constitutional.
- That the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit’s decision in this case conflicts with other circuit’s rulings on the matter.
- That the ADC grooming policy of no beards is not the least restrictive means of achieving the desired objective of staunching the flow of contraband and identifying prisoners in the event of an escape.
In 2000, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) to provide protection for the free exercise of religion in several contexts, including incarceration. RLUIPA states: “No government shall impose . . . a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” unless it “(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” The definition of “religious exercise” in RLUIPA “includes any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.”
In 2011, Gregory Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad), an inmate in the Arkansas Department of Correction (“ADC”), sought permission through the prison grievance process to wear a half-inch beard in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs. Holt asserted that his Muslim religious beliefs required that he grow a beard, thus the ADC grooming policy hampered his ability to practice his religion. The ADC grooming policy prohibits all inmates from growing beard except for those prisoners who have certain diagnosed dermatological issues. This medical exception to the no-beard policy allows those prisoners to keep a quarter-inch beard. Thus, viewing it a compromise between his religious belief requiring that he grow a beard and the security concerns of the ADC, Holt requested authorization to grow a half-inch beard.
The ADC denied Holt’s request. Subsequently, in June 2011, Holt sued the several ADC officers including Director Ray Hobbs (referred to collectively as “ADC officers”) in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas (“district court”) claiming that the grooming policy violated his right to exercise religion freely. In an effort to cease the enforcement of no-beard policy as well as halt disciplinary actions pending against prisoners with half-inch beards, Holt also filed for a preliminary injunction. Though the district court initially granted the preliminary injunction without a hearing, it later denied it and dismissed the case. On appeal, the Eighth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision. Holt then filed a petition for certiorari with the Supreme Court of the United States on September 27, 2013. The Supreme Court granted certiorari to determine whether the ADC’s beard policy, insofar as it bars inmates from growing religiously motivated half-inch beards, violates RLUIPA.
In this case, the Court will address whether the ADC’s beard policy violates RLUIPA by barring a prisoner from growing a religiously motivated half-inch beard. RLUIPA states: “No government shall impose . . . a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person” unless it “(A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” Though the parties agree that the no-beard policy imposes a substantial burden on Holt’s religious exercise, they disagree on whether the policy furthers a compelling governmental interest in the least restrictive way possible. In clarifying these issues, the Court will also have the opportunity to clarify what deference—if any—courts should give to the judgment of prison officials.
COMPELLING GOVERNMENT INTEREST
The ADC officers argue that the grooming policy serves a compelling government interest. Specifically, they contend that the no-beard policy aids prisons in identifying inmates and further, takes away a place where inmates can conceal contraband, thereby promoting prison security and safety. The ADC officers note that beards can conceal contraband, such as drugs or needles, which could pose a security threat to the prison. Additionally, they suggest that a prisoner can rapidly change his appearance through shaving a heard, and thus the no-beard policy helps curb this possibility. Also, though the ADC grooming policy does not provide an exception for prisoners who wish to grow a beard for religious reasons, it does provide an exception for prisoners with certain diagnosed dermatological problems to grow a quarter-inch beard. The ADC officers argue that the medical exception has a far smaller impact than the proposed religious exception and that the medical needs of inmates results in a different balancing of interests. Consequently, the ADC officers contend that the more relaxed restrictions for inmates with diagnosed dermatological conditions do not render unreasonable the belief that longer beards pose security concerns.
On the other hand, Holt argues that the ADC does not have a compelling interest in prohibiting inmates from growing beads because at least forty-four American prison systems allow inmates to maintain beards. Holt contends that in the past, the Court has noted that the policies at other prisons are relevant to determining whether a challenged policy further a compelling government interest. Thus, Holt argues that the ADC officers must show that the half-inch beards allowed by other prisons caused pertinent safety and security issues. Moreover, Holt maintains that, given other hiding places available to prisoners, permitting a religiously motivated half-inch beard would not increase the risk of contraband. Finally, Holt contends that if medical beards override the ADC’s interest in prison safety and security, then a religious half-inch beard should too.
LEAST RESTRICTIVE MEANS
Assuming that prison safety and security are compelling government interests, Holt notes that the ADC must next prove that it chose the least restrictive means to further that interest. Holt argues that to do so, the ADC must establish that prior to implementing the beard policy at issue, the ADC “considered and rejected” other less restrictive policies. Holt argues that there are several less restrictive alternatives including: mandatory searches of inmates’ beards, forcing inmates to shave if contraband is found in their beards, and compelling inmates to take new photos any time his appearance is altered.
On the contrary, the ADC officers argue that the no-beard policy is the least restrictive means to achieving a compelling government interest because there are no feasible means that would be as effective in achieving the policy’s purposes. They maintain that Holt’s proposed half-inch beard policy would create issues with concealing contraband within hair—something the no-beard policy adequately addresses. Finally, the ADC officers assert that allowing half-inch beards would also give rise to identification problems not remediable by multiple photographs because the policy would create administrative problems, which exacerbates the issue of limited resources.
LEGISLATIVE HISTORY AND DEFERENCE TO PRISON OFFICIALS
Holt notes that the legislative history of RLUIPA indicates that the statutory standard of a compelling interest and least restrictive means should be administered with appropriate deference to prison official’s expertise and experience. Nonetheless, Holt argues that this cannot overrule statutory text and that no deference is due to the ADC officers. Further, Holt contends that the legislative history does not stipulate how much deference is due and does not nullify the ADC officers’ burden to demonstrate a compelling interest or that the current policy is the least restrictive means.
The ADC officers disagree, asserting that courts should defer to the judgment of prison officials. They note that deference does not equate to “rubber stamping.” Rather, the ADC officers contend that reviewing courts should understand that hard examples and data may not be available for assessing how a policy works in prison, and that sometimes prison official must enact prophylactic bans to avoid problems preemptively. Additionally, they argue that courts should permit prisons to make judgment calls even if the policy only fixes part of an issue. The ADC officials further maintain that courts should realize that policies that work at one prison may not necessarily work at another prison. Lastly, the ADC officials assert that prisons should not be subject to a “consider-and-reject” requirement for prison policies because RLUIPA does not impose such conditions.
This case presents the Supreme Court with the opportunity to determine how RLUIPA should be applied when prison regulations impose a substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise. The parties do not dispute that the ADC no-beard policy imposes a substantial burden on Holt. Still, the resolution of this case may implicate the ability of prisoners to exercise their right to free religion while incarcerated. In turn, this may affect recidivism rates.
GOVERNMENT’S INTEREST IN PRISON SECURITY VS. PRISONERS’ RIGHT TO RELIGIOUS EXERCISE
The ADC and supporting amici contend that prison security and safety is a compelling government interest, and that the grooming policy prohibiting beards supports this interest. Amici Alabama and eighteen other states argue that uniformity in prisons, including a bright-line grooming policy, helps maintain discipline and order. Writing as an amicus, the United States also notes that it believes the government does have a compelling interest in prison security.
Holt disagrees, asserting that a general interest in prison security is not enough to override inmates’ religious freedom. Holt and supporting amici further argue that the prohibition on half-inch beards does not constitute a compelling government interest in prison security, or at minimum that there is another way to address the issue, because at least forty-four American prison systems currently allow either all or only those prisoners motivated by religion to wear at least a half-inch beard. The United States also notes that prisoners still enjoy constitutional protections while incarcerated, even if those rights are restricted. The United States, therefore, contends even though it views prison safety as a compelling government interest, prisons cannot always restrict a prisoner’s religious freedom on that ground.
THE EFFECTS OF RELIGION AND PERCEPTIONS OF FAIRNESS IN PRISON
Various amici urge the Court to consider that religion in prisons seems to produce various benefits, including a lower rate of recidivism. Some of these amici note that over the past twenty years, studies have come to show that even a prisoner’s modest religious activity is linked to decreased recidivism as compared to prisoners who do not engage in religion while incarcerated. Additionally, a group of former corrections officials contends that when inmates believe that the prison’s approach to regulations are fair, the likelihood that prisoners decide to obey the regulations increases. The former corrections officials thus maintain that if inmates perceive religious exemptions to prison regulations as “non-arbitrary and fair,” there will be a positive impact on prison security.
The Supreme Court will address whether the ADC’s grooming policy violates RLUIPA by prohibiting an inmate, motivated by his religious beliefs, from growing a half-inch beard. In resolving this issue, the Court will provide the proper legal framework for determining whether a government regulation or policy conflicts with RLUIPA, how much deference to extend to prison officials, and whether the policy in question achieves a compelling government interest in the least restrictive means. Holt argues that the Arkansas policy imposes a substantial burden on prisoners who want to grow a beard in accordance with their religious beliefs and that there are less restrictive alternatives to achieving a safe prison system. Conversely, the ADC officers contend that a reviewing court should extend due deference to prison officials and that the grooming policy furthers a compelling interest through the least restrictive means.
- Robert Barnes: Question of Beard and Religious Freedom Unites Groups Who’ve Been Opponents, The Washington Post (Aug. 31, 2014).
- Adam Liptak: Beards in Prison Hold Next Religion Test for Supreme Court, The New York Times (Sept. 2, 2014).