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Holt v. Hobbs: SCOTUS Says Muslim Prisoner Can Have Half-Inch Beard

In a case that Court-watchers were eagerly anticipating, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously today in Holt v. Hobbs that a prison policy prohibiting inmates from growing beards unless they have a dermatological condition violates the First Amendment.

Holt, a prisoner in Arkansas, converted to Islam and changed his name to Abdul Maalik Muhammad. Muhammad's reading of Muslim scripture required him to grow a beard, something prison policy forbade. Muhammad sued pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

How Do You Pronounce 'RLUIPA'?

Here's the thing about RLUIPA: It's different from the test the Court would be using out in the "civilian" world. RLUIPA and its companion, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), were born from a political Congressional decision.

The old test for Free Exercise cases -- prior to these statutes -- involved balancing tests. In Sherbert v. Verner, the Court said that a Free Exercise burden had to be necessary to further a compelling government interest. But the Court changed its mind 27 years later in Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith, where Justice Scalia, of all people, articulated a new test: Laws could burden religious activity as long as they were neutral with respect to religion and applicable to everyone, not just religious practitioners. Congress passed RFRA to force the old test to be used, but the Supreme Court ruled that law unconstitutional as applied to the states; Congress can't tell states which religious tests to use. Congress responded with RLUIPA, which uses the Commerce Clause to regulate land use and the religious activity of prisoners (which I guess is better than nothing?).

More Religious Freedom in Prison

Ironically, the statute that applies to religious activity in prisons is far more forgiving than the Employment Division test, which applies out here in the non-prison world. RLUIPA isn't just a balancing test; prisons must use the least-restrictive alternative.

Given this deference, the justices seemed skeptical of the prison at oral arguments. Counsel for Arkansas argued that Muhammad could conceal objects in his half-inch beard, like a SIM card or a tiny revolver, which the justices found just hilarious. "Why can't the prison just give the inmate a comb, and say comb your beard, and if there's a SIM card in there or a tiny revolver, it'll fall out?" asked Justice Alito, who ended up writing the opinion of the Court.

In the opinion, he answers his own question: "[T]he argument that this [security] interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1/2-inch beard is hard to take seriously."

Concurrences: Take That!

Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred in two sentences to slam the Hobby Lobby decision. "Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner's religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner's belief," Ginsburg wrote. Boom goes the dynamite!

Sotomayor also concurred separately to caution that the Court should defer to prison officials when they "offer a plausible explanation for their chosen policy that is supported by whatever evidence is reasonably available to them." In this case, she said, the officials could muster no evidence that a restriction on Muhammad's beard was necessary. She pointed out, though, that the Court should examine only the relationship between the asserted purposes of the restriction and the burden on the prisoner; it shouldn't exercise its own judgment on the wisdom of that prison policy.

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