Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Some Thoughts On Today's Supreme Court Decision In Holt v. Hobbs

Today's Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs (see prior posting) is likely to lead to a dramatic increase in resources that federal district courts must devote to the dozens-- if not hundreds-- of prisoner RLUIPA cases that are filed each year.  Federal courts, under 28 USC Sec. 1915A, are required to conduct an early preliminary screening of prisoner lawsuits in order to dismiss those that have no chance of success.  It has been common for district courts to dismiss cases at this preliminary stage on the ground that the inmate has failed to show a "substantial burden" on his or her religious exercise.  Often courts have reached that conclusion on the basis that, while an inmate was denied the ability to carry out some particular religious ritual or requirement, the inmate had a number of other ways to practice his or her faith.  Today the Supreme Court rejected that approach, saying:
[T]he District Court erred by concluding that the grooming policy did not substantially burden petitioner’s religious exercise because “he had been provided a prayer rug and a list of distributors of Islamic material, he was allowed to correspond with a religious advisor, and was allowed to maintain the required diet and observe religious holidays.”... In taking this approach, the District Court improperly imported a strand of reasoning from cases involving prisoners’ First Amendment rights. See, e.g., O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U. S. 342, 351–352 (1987); see also Turner v. Safley, 482 U. S. 78, 90 (1987). Under those cases, the availability of alternative means of practicing religion is a relevant consideration, but RLUIPA provides greater protection. 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.
So courts will now need to concentrate on the "compelling interest" and "least restrictive means" prongs of RLUIPA in initial screening of complaints.  More cases are likely to survive initial screening when those elements are the focus.  In prison contexts, generally one of two sorts of compelling interests are asserted-- (1) prison security or (2) budgetary concerns in accommodating prisoner religious practices.  In Holt, security and safety were asserted, and the Court conceded that those are compelling interests. However it suggested that budgetary concerns (such as those asserted when inmates seek religious diets) pose a more difficult question, saying:
Congress stated that RLUIPA “may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise.” §2000cc–3(c). See Hobby Lobby.... 
When it comes to evaluating whether the government has shown that its restriction on religious exercise is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, the Court emphasized that the inquiry must be narrowly focused:
The Department argues that its grooming policy represents the least restrictive means of furthering a “‘broadly formulated interes[t],’” ... namely, the Department’s compelling interest in prison safety and security. But RLUIPA, like RFRA, contemplates a “‘more focused’” inquiry and “‘requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law “to the person”––the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened.’”... RLUIPA requires us to “‘scrutiniz[e] the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants’” and “to look to the marginal interest in enforcing” the challenged government action in that particular context....
How far must this individualization go?  Must authorities consider how likely it is that the particular claimant will create a security risk?  Should the evaluation of alternatives depend, for example, on whether the particular inmate seeking to grow a beard has a history of attempting to smuggle contraband? The more individualized the determination must be, the fewer cases that will be able to be disposed of at the preliminary screening stage.

Finally one additional portion of the Court's opinion adds complexity to the question of when a religious exemption from a prison rule must be granted. The Court said:
[T]he District Court went astray when it relied on petitioner’s testimony that not all Muslims believe that men must grow beards. Petitioner’s belief is by no means idiosyncratic....  But even if it were, the protection of RLUIPA, no less than the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause, is “not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.”
Those who follow Religion Clause's weekly summary of prisoner free exercise cases know that inmates professing a wide variety of religious beliefs seek religious accommodations relating to grooming, clothing, possession of religious items, worship space, congregate religious services, religious dietary restrictions, and more.  The Supreme Court has now reaffirmed the conclusion of most courts that an inmate may invoke RLUIPA to require accommodation of a totally idiosyncratic belief-- so long as it is sincerely held. Religious visions shared by no one else apparently still qualify.