Prisoner Beards and Religious Liberty: Holt v. Hobbs

Religious Liberties Practice Group Courthouse Steps Teleforum

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held on January 20, 2015 that a prison inmate has the right to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons. In Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.’s unanimous opinion, the Court emphasized the vast protection provided for religious freedom by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—and its sister statute RFRA—calling this protection “very broad,” “expansive,” “capacious[],” and “substantial.”

Applying RLUIPA’s standard, the Court held that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise; that the Department had not proven that its policy interests in preventing the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification were furthered by the prohibition against beards; and that the Department failed to show that its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests, especially when over 40 other state and federal prison systems permit similar beards.

The Court has now vigorously enforced RLUIPA and RFRA three times in a row: first in Gonzales v. O Centro (2006), second in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), and now in Holt v. Hobbs. The Holt decision appears to send a clear message to lower courts that strict scrutiny for religious freedom must be taken seriously—both in the prison context and elsewhere.

  • Hannah C. Smith, Senior Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held on January 20, 2015 that a prison inmate has the right to grow a half-inch beard for religious reasons. In Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr.’s unanimous opinion, the Court emphasized the vast protection provided for religious freedom by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—and its sister statute RFRA—calling this protection “very broad,” “expansive,” “capacious[],” and “substantial.”

Applying RLUIPA’s standard, the Court held that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise; that the Department had not proven that its policy interests in preventing the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification were furthered by the prohibition against beards; and that the Department failed to show that its policy was the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests, especially when over 40 other state and federal prison systems permit similar beards.

The Court has now vigorously enforced RLUIPA and RFRA three times in a row: first in Gonzales v. O Centro (2006), second in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014), and now in Holt v. Hobbs. The Holt decision appears to send a clear message to lower courts that strict scrutiny for religious freedom must be taken seriously—both in the prison context and elsewhere.

  • Hannah C. Smith, Senior Counsel, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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