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Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on Short Beard for Muslim Prisoner

Supreme Court Strikes Down Ban on Short Beard for Muslim Prisoner

by Derek Gilna

In a unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court found a restriction imposed on a Muslim prisoner who wanted to grow a short beard for religious reasons violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Gregory Houston Holt, AKA Abdul Maalik Muhammad, a devout Muslim, had sought permission from the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADOC) to grow a half-inch beard to conform to his religious beliefs. The ADOC denied his request and Holt filed a pro se suit in federal court.

The ADOC asserted that it routinely banned all beards, except those of one-quarter inch length for medical reasons only, and that the reason for the policy was to prevent prisoners with longer beards from concealing contraband or changing their appearance to avoid identification, such as following an escape. The district court adopted the recommendation of the federal magistrate, who – although stating “it’s almost preposterous to think that you could hide contraband in your beard” – cited the deference given to corrections officials, and dismissed Holt’s complaint. The Eighth Circuit affirmed the dismissal and Holt sought certiorari review by the Supreme Court, which granted his petition.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote a January 20, 2015 opinion rejecting the ADOC’s arguments. “We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 114 Stat. 803, 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq.,which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.”

The Supreme Court went on to explain that the ADOC had failed to show that its policy of banning all beards was the least restrictive means of maintaining security, since prisoners could “be photographed with and without beards.” The Court also noted that many other prison systems allowed prisoners to have facial hair without incident, and that there was little difference in the security risk presented by a prisoner having a half-inch beard, a quarter-inch beard, a mustache or head hair.

Further, the Court observed that “RLUIPA provides greater protection” than religious claims brought under the First Amendment, and that “RLUIPA’s ‘substantial burden’ inquiry asks whether the government has substantially burdened religious exercise (here, the growing of a 1/2-inch beard), not whether the RLUIPA claimant is able to engage in other forms of religious exercise.” The Supreme Court also said it was “hard to take seriously” the ADOC’s purported security concerns regarding prisoners hiding contraband in their beards. “Hair on the head is a more plausible place to hide contraband than a 1/2-inch beard – and the same is true of an inmate’s clothing and shoes,” the Court wrote. “Nevertheless, the Department does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked.”

The Supreme Court concluded that Holt had met his burden under RLUIPA to show that the ADOC’s policy constituted a substantial burden on his religious beliefs, and that there were clearly less burdensome options available to achieve the purposes of institutional security other than an outright ban on beards for religious reasons. Accordingly, the lower court’s order of dismissal was reversed and remanded. See: Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015).

Following remand, the district court entered a permanent injunction on June 4, 2015, stating that Holt “has a federal right to wear a beard of up to one-half inch in length.” The court noted that the ADOC had since “adopted a new grooming policy, Administrative Directive 15-04, that allows religiously motivated prisoners to request ‘accommodations’ that can allow beards without length limits.” Holt did not recover damages, as only injunctive relief is available under RLUIPA. See: Sossamon v. Texas, 131 S.Ct. 1651 (2011) [PLN, Aug. 2011, p.22].


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Related legal case

Holt v. Hobbs