Smith v. Owens

Becket Role:
Counsel
Case Start Date:
January 24, 2012
Deciding Court:
U.S. Supreme Court
Original Court:
U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia
Practice Area(s):

Case Snapshot

For 10 years, inmate Lester Smith has been fighting for his right to wear a beard in accordance with his Muslim religious beliefs. Even though 38 states and the Bureau of Prisons allow prisoners to have untrimmed beards, the Georgia Department of Corrections and the Eleventh Circuit maintain that Smith can only grow a half-inch beard. Now Smith is appealing to the United States Supreme Court to ask it to review his case.

Status

On April 28, 2022, Becket, along with the University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Smith, asking the Court to protect this inmate’s religious expression under the precedence set by Holt v. Hobbs.

Case Summary

RLUIPA allows prisoners to seek God 

The peaceful expression of religion is an important aspect of human culture, and can provide important and unique benefits for prisoners and society alike. Studies have shown that allowing prisoners to connect with their faith helps with rehabilitation, ensures that they can reintegrate into society when released, and reduces recidivism. For decades, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) has protected the religious freedom of inmates. It has enabled Jewish inmates to obey kosher diets, Catholics to access to important sacraments, and practitioners of many faiths to possess religious texts.

In 2015, the Supreme Court unanimously confirmed the importance of protecting prisoners’ religious exercise, holding in Holt v. Hobbs that Arkansas was required to accommodate a Muslim prisoner’s request for a half-inch beard. As the Supreme Court in Holt explained, RLUIPA is a crucial protection for religious prisoners, ensuring that religious exercise is not arbitrarily burdened by prison officials. Instead, prison officials must explain—with supporting evidence—why they cannot accommodate the sincere religious exercise of an inmate. This burden is especially demanding when most other prison systems safely provide the same accommodation. Unfortunately, some courts and prison systems did not get the Supreme Court’s message in Holt v. Hobbs.  

The Eleventh Circuit ignores Holt v. Hobbs 

In 2012, Lester Smith filed a lawsuit after his request to the Georgia Department of Corrections (GDOC) to grow a full-length beard was denied, a request that most prison systems would allow. As a devout Muslim, Mr. Smith believes that an untrimmed beard is required by his faith. But the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against Mr. Smith, claiming that it was enough for GDOC to say that it is more risk-averse than 39 other prison systems, and that allowing beards creates some additional risk. In essence, GDOC can write its own permission slip to violate Mr. Smith’s rights. 

In reaching its decision, the Eleventh Circuit relied on its 2015 decision in Knight v. Thompson, where Becket filed a friend-of-the-court brief. Knight was flatly inconsistent with both Holt v. Hobbs and the way that other courts around the country have interpreted RLUIPA. In Mr. Smith’s case, the Eleventh Circuit has doubled down on that wrong position. 

At the Supreme Court   

On April 28, 2022, Becket, along with Scott Ballenger and Sarah Shalf of the University of Virginia Appellate Litigation Clinic, filed a petition to the Supreme Court on behalf of Mr. Smith, asking the Court to protect this inmate’s religious expression under the rule of Holt v. Hobbs. The ruling in Holt taught us that a prison must offer enough proof that it cannot provide the same accommodation practices set by other institutions. If 39 other prison systems can allow untrimmed beards without incident, that is conclusive evidence that a longer beard is not detrimental to the safety and security of Georgia’s prisons. Courts also cannot blindly defer to prison officials’ preferences if religious accommodations are possible.  

The Supreme Court laid out a clear rule in Holt, saying that prisons should be inclined to withdraw existing accommodations if they are abused rather than denying them outright. But no such misbehavior is present here. Mr. Smith has the right to follow his sincere beliefs and grow his beard.  

Importance to Religious Liberty:

  • Individual freedom: A fundamental part of human dignity is recognizing the human desire for religious faith.
  • RLUIPA: The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – passed, like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), with strong bipartisan support – protects the human dignity of prisoners by ensuring that their religious liberty is protected and bans discriminatory land-use rules that are often used to prevent disfavored groups from building houses of worship.