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Fourth Circuit Vacates Summary Judgment on RLUIPA Haircut Claim, but Case Dismissed on Remand

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals vacated a district court’s decision granting summary judgment to officers and officials with the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC) after they forcibly shaved a prisoner’s head in contravention of his religious beliefs. The prisoner, Kevin Smith, a/k/a Bar-None Royal Blackness, was being housed in SCDC’s Maximum Security Unit (MSU) where a grooming policy requires prisoners “to wear close-cropped haircuts for security reasons.” Prisoners who refuse to comply with the policy are given forced haircuts.

Smith’s attorney, Cecily Elizabeth Baskir with the Georgetown University Law Center in Washington, D.C., argued that Smith, a practicing Rastafarian, was unlawfully subjected to forced haircuts by MSU staff in violation of his religious rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Smith filed his initial complaint pro se, alleging RLUIPA violations pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc to 2000cc-5. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants and Smith appealed.

RLUIPA provides, in pertinent part, that “no government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution ... even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person l) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and 2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that governmental interest.”

The Court of Appeals determined that for summary judgment to be granted on Smith’s RLUIPA claim, the SCDC officials had the burden of proving a compelling government interest was being advanced by requiring Smith to cut his hair, and that a forced haircut was the “least restrictive” means of furthering that interest. The appellate court disagreed with the SCDC’s argument that Smith’s religious practices were only “incidentally” affected by the MSU grooming policy, as the policy required him to “modify his behavior and violate his religious beliefs.”

Further, the SCDC’s argument that close-cropped haircuts were necessary “for security reasons” fell short of explaining why the security interest was compelling. Even granting the compelling nature of the security interest in regard to haircuts, the SCDC did not attempt to address how the haircuts were the “least restrictive” means of furthering that interest.

The Fourth Circuit concluded that the SCDC had failed to meet its burden of proof in regard to Smith’s RLUIPA claim; therefore, the district court’s decision granting summary judgment to the defendants was vacated and the case remanded for further proceedings. See: Smith v. Ozmint, 578 F.3d 246 (4th Cir. 2009).

On remand the district court again granted the defendants’ motion for summary judgment on Smith’s RLUIPA claim, finding the MSU grooming policy was the least restrictive means to further a compelling governmental interest; the court also denied Smith’s motion for a preliminary injunction. See: Smith v. Ozmint, 2010 WL 1071388 (Jan. 25, 2010).
The district court’s judgment was affirmed on appeal, with the Fourth Circuit holding that Smith’s “arguments [were] without merit or support in the record.” See: Smith v. Ozmint, 2010 WL 3760233 (Sept. 23, 2010).

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Related legal cases

Smith v. Ozmint

Smith v. Ozmint

Smith v. Ozmint