Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Supreme Court Unanimously Upholds Muslim Inmate's Right To Grow Half-Inch Beard

Today in Holt v. Hobbs, (Sup. Ct., Jan 20, 2015), the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously held that the Arkansas Department of Corrections policy that prevents a Muslim inmate from growing a one-half inch beard for religious reasons violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.  In an opinion by Justice Alito the court held that it is irrelevant for purposes of RLUIPA that an inmate has other means of practicing his religion. While cases invovling prisoners' First Amendment rights invoke that reasoning, RLUIPA provides greater protection.  The court went on to reject the state's contention that its no-beard policy is the least restictive means of furthering a compelling state interest. It found unpersuasive the state's arguments regarding contraband and identification of inmates. The Court added that prison officials still have ample ways to maintain security, saying that "in applying RLUIPA’s statutory standard, courts should not blind themselves to the fact that the analysis is conducted in the prison setting."

Justice Ginsburg filed a short concurring opinion, joined by Justice Sotomayor, emphasizing that here, unlike in the Hobby Lobby case, accommodating petitioner's religious beliefs would not detrimentally affect third parties who do not share his beliefs. Justice Sotomayor filed a separate concurring opinion saying: "I do not understand the Court’s opinion to preclude deferring to prison officials’ reasoning when that deference is due—that is, when prison officials offer a plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them."