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Prisoner beards and religious freedoms — what a recent Supreme Court decision means for you By Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

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By Hannah Smith, Senior Counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty

Late last month, the U.S. Supreme Court delivered a unanimous victory for religious freedom in Holt v. Hobbs. It held that a federal civil rights statute requires prison officials to accommodate peaceful expressions of religious devotion, an issue arising from a dispute between a bearded Muslim inmate (named Holt) and the Arkansas Department of Correction. Because the same statute also happens to protect the land-use needs of religious organizations, the circle of winners from the court’s endorsement of the statute’s power extends well beyond a prison’s walls.

In ruling for Holt, the court adopted the reasoning of his pro bono advocates, The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and professor Douglas Laycock at the University of Virginia’s Law School. Holt had been denied the right to grow the half-inch beard that his Muslim faith commands — even though Arkansas allowed inmates to grow beards for medical reasons and Holt’s beard would be permissible in over 40 other state and federal prison systems.

The prisoner challenged the Arkansas policy by invoking the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) — a federal civil rights statute championed by Sens. Orrin Hatch (Utah) and Ted Kennedy (Massachusetts) and passed unanimously by Congress 15 years ago. RLUIPA requires states to meet a high level of justification (“strict scrutiny”) for any actions that burden religious freedom in two areas where discrimination on the basis of religion is prevalent — land use and prisons. The Holt decision is the first time the Supreme Court has ever given substantive meaning to RLUIPA’s protections for religious freedom. In Holt, the court repeatedly emphasized how vast those protections are — “very broad,” “expansive,” “capacious” and “substantial.”

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., the court found that Arkansas’ policy banning beards substantially burdened the inmate’s religious exercise and lacked the high degree of justification required for such a burden. It forced the inmate into an unjust corner — either engage in activity that seriously violates his religious belief or face disciplinary action. The court went further, saying it doesn’t matter that officials permit the prisoner to exercise other aspects of his religion, like having a prayer rug or observing religious holidays. The court said that governments can’t force religious individuals to trade one religious practice for another.

This reasoning shifted the burden to Arkansas to prove both that a “compelling government interest” justified the policy and that the state had used means that were the “least restrictive” to the religious exercise. On whether the interest was compelling, the court held that Arkansas had not proven that its policy interests — for example, preventing the flow of contraband — were advanced by the beard ban. Because Arkansas doesn’t require inmates to shave or crew-cut the hair on top of their heads, it’s hard to see why (or even how) an inmate would hide contraband in a short beard rather than in longer hair on top.

Finally, the court held that Arkansas had not proven its policy was the least restrictive means of accomplishing its objectives, especially when over 40 other state and federal prison systems permit similar beards. Arkansas didn’t show why it can search prisoner’s hair, clothes and quarter-inch medical beards, but not half-inch religious beards.

The Supreme Court has now heartily endorsed leading religious exemption statutes — RLUIPA and its sister statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — three times in a row and twice unanimously. First, in 2006 in Gonzales v. O Centro, the court unanimously interpreted RFRA to favor a Brazilian spiritist church seeking an exemption from the federal drug laws to drink hallucinogenic tea. Second, in 2014 in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the court interpreted RFRA to favor religious business owners seeking an exemption from the government’s Health and Human Services contraception mandate. And now in Holt, the unanimous court instructed lower courts that burdens on religious freedom must face serious scrutiny — both in prisons and elsewhere.

So if you don’t live in Arkansas, you don’t wear a beard, and you’re not a prisoner, why does the Holt decision matter to you? If you care about religious freedom, Holt will help those defending it in the courts in at least three ways.

First, the Holt decision will help religious prisoners in other RLUIPA cases, such as Jewish prisoners seeking kosher diets. Second, the Holt decision will help religious plaintiffs in land-use cases, making it harder for local governments to treat poorly zoning requests from churches, synagogues and mosques. Third, the Holt decision will help RFRA plaintiffs because the same favorable legal standard (high justification for government burdens on religion) in RLUIPA also applies to RFRA. The Becket Fund is pursuing several RFRA cases, including defending a Native American church barred by discriminatory Interior Department rules from using sacred eagle feathers in its religious ceremonies. Others involve many nonprofit religious organizations opposing the HHS contraception mandate in cases expected soon to reach the U.S. Supreme Court.

The Holt decision is a solid victory for a prisoner who sought to wear a beard in accord with his Muslim faith. But it’s an even more important victory for religious freedom generally, because it shows that the U.S. Supreme Court’s commitment to religious freedom for Americans of all faiths endures.

Hannah C. Smith twice clerked at the U.S. Supreme Court and is a member of the Deseret News Editorial Advisory Board. She is senior counsel at The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a public interest law firm that defends religious liberty for people of all faiths. The Becket Fund was co-counsel at the Supreme Court in the Holt v. Hobbs case.

This op-ed first appeared in the Deseret News.