On January 20, 2015, the Supreme Court of the United States decided Holt v. Hobbs, No. 13-6827, holding that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates Section 3 of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act because it prevents petitioner from growing a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.
Holt, a devout Muslim and Arkansas inmate, desired to grow a beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. However, the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy provided that “[n]o inmates will be permitted to wear facial hair other than a neatly trimmed mustache that does not extend beyond the corner of the mouth or over the lip.” The policy made no exception for inmates who object on religious grounds but permitted inmates with a diagnosed dermatological problem to wear a ¼-inch beard if prescribed by medical staff.
Holt sought permission from the Department to grow a beard and, although he believes that his faith requires him not to trim his beard at all, he proposed a “compromise” under which he would grow only a ½-inch beard. His request was denied, and Holt subsequently filed a pro se complaint in the federal district court challenging the Department’s grooming policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc et seq. During an evidentiary hearing, the Department called two witnesses who testified that they believed inmates could hide contraband in a ½-inch beard, but neither could point to any instances in which this had occurred in Arkansas or elsewhere. The witnesses also acknowledged that inmates could hide contraband in other places, like their hair or clothing. The District Court dismissed Holt’s complaint for failure to state a claim, and the Eight Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the Department’s grooming policy created a “substantial burden” on Holt’s religious exercise, in contravention of RLUIPA. The Court found that Holt met his initial burden to show that the Department’s grooming policy substantially burdened his exercise of religion, shifting the burden to the Department under RLUIPA to show that its refusal to allow him to grow a ½-inch beard (1) was in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest, and (2) was the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest. The Court agreed that the Department has a compelling interest in reducing the flow of contraband into its facilities but noted that the Department’s “argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a ½-inch beard is hard to take seriously.”
Under RLUIPA, the Department was required to prove that denying the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, an exceptionally demanding standard that required the government to show that it lacked other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting party. Because the Department failed to establish that it could not satisfy its security concerns by simply searching Holt’s beard, it failed the second prong of this test. The Department also argued that its grooming policy was necessary to prevent prisoners from disguising their identities and that, absent such policy, bearded inmates could shave and change their appearance. The Court was unpersuaded by this argument, noting that the Department could take pre- and post-beard photos of its inmates so that prison guards would have dual photos to use in making identifications.
In addition, the Court determined that the Department failed to adequately demonstrate under RLUIPA why its grooming policy is substantially underinclusive. Specifically, the Court noted that the Department permitted inmates to grow more than ½-inch of hair on their heads, which was a more plausible place to hide contraband than a ½-inch beard. In addition, clothing and shoes were a more plausible place to hide contraband than a beard, but the Department “does not require inmates to go about bald, barefoot, or naked.” In short, although the Department claimed the rationale behind its grooming policy was to stop the flow of contraband, the Department did not pursue these objections with respect to analogous nonreligious conduct.
In addition, the Department failed to establish that a ¼-inch difference in beard length from those inmates permitted to grow a ¼-inch beard for medical purposes posed a meaningful increase in security risk. Lastly, the Court noted that the Department failed to differentiate itself from the vast majority of States and the Federal Government, which permit inmates to grow ½-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious reasons. The Court found that this fact suggested that the Department could satisfy its security concerns through a means less restrictive than denying Holt the exemption he sought.
Justice Alito delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. Justices Ginsburg filed a concurring opinion in which Justice Sotomayor joined. Justice Sotomayor also filed a separate concurring opinion.