Holt involves Gregory Holt, an inmate in Arkansas also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad. A dispute arose between Holt and the state’s Department of Correction when he sought to grow a one-half-inch beard in observance of his faith. According to the department’s grooming policies, inmates may only grow a “neatly trimmed mustache.” In 2011, Holt filed a lawsuit against the director of the department, Ray Hobbs, and other state employees, saying that the prison had violated his religious rights. After decisions by federal trial and appeals courts in favor of the department, Holt filed a hand-written petition to the Supreme Court, which agreed to review the case. The justices are scheduled to hear arguments in Holt on October 7.
If Hobby Lobby and federal law are faithfully applied, Holt should prevail. Prisoners surrender many of their rights at the prison gates. “Lawful incarceration brings about the necessary withdrawal or limitation of many privileges and rights,” the Supreme Court wrote in Price v. Johnston more than 60 years ago. In 2000, however, Congress enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to help safeguard inmates’ religious freedom. The law states that the government may not place a substantial burden on a prisoner’s ability to practice his or her religion unless that burden is the “least-restrictive means” to achieve a “compelling” goal.
This standard may sound familiar—RLUIPA is the sister statute to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, the federal law which was at issue in Hobby Lobby. These laws apply to different laws implicating religious freedom—RFRA only to federal laws and RLUIPA to the land use and prison contexts—but both ask whether a religious burden is the “least-restrictive means” of accomplishing the government’s “compelling” goals.
In this case, there is no dispute that the prison regulations substantially burden Holt’s religious freedom. His Hobson’s choice—either obey the prison grooming policies and violate his religious beliefs, or adhere to his conscience and face disciplinary measures—is a quintessential substantial burden.
But the prison authorities have a “compelling” reason to restrict Holt’s ability to practice his religion. In Hobby Lobby, the Supreme Court simply assumed the federal government had sufficient reasons for requiring contraceptive coverage. In Holt, it will likely agree with the department’s position that the “no-beard policy enhances prison safety and security by removing an important hiding place for contraband and by facilitating the identification of inmates who wish to engage in violence or escape.”
On their own, however, these reasons don’t seem to be enough to satisfy RLUIPA. The regulations will also have to pass the statute’s “least restrictive means” test: The government must meet its goals in the way that best preserves religious liberty. This was also the sticking point in Hobby Lobby. In that case, the government had already made exemptions for religious nonprofit organizations, which undermined its argument that religious exemptions could not be made for certain for-profit corporations. Holt involves a similar situation: Arkansas’s prisons already offer medical exemptions to their grooming policies, which makes it difficult to argue that religious exemptions are not possible. As a federal appeals court wrote in Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Newark, which concerned Newark’s police-department grooming policies, “We are at a loss to understand why religious exemptions threaten important city interests but medical exemptions do not.” The decision was written by then-Judge Samuel Alito, author of the Hobby Lobby opinion.