By Marissa Miller and Alexandra Gentille
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to decide what kinds of inmate religious freedoms prison officials can restrict to provide a risk free environment. On Oct. 7, 2014 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth District heard a federal case involving a Muslim inmate’s religious freedom and an Arkansas correctional facility’s grooming policy. Gregory Houston Holt, also known Abdul Maalik Muhammad is the plaintiff who brought to court defendant Ray Hobbs the Director of Arkansas’ Department of Correction. The high court was asked to decide whether or not Arkansas’ prison policy which banned Holt’s religious one-half-inch beard complies with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.
Holt has filed a lawsuit against the Arkansas correctional facility where he was detained when they denied him permission to grow out his beard for his Muslim religion. The facility does not allow inmates to have facial hair longer than a quarter inch. An exception to the prison’s policy would only be made if a doctor diagnosed an inmate with a skin condition. Holt used the RLUIPA Act to defend his case.
The RLUIPA Act says that, “[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution.” The Arkansas prison must prove that its grooming policy is of a “compelling government interest” and is “necessary and narrowly tailored” as described by strict scrutiny judicial review to restrict Holt from having a long beard.
Arkansas prison administrators are likely to argue several persuasive government interests in the Holt v. Hobbs case. They are concerned about lengthy facial hair interfering with serious skin conditions and inmates changing their appearance to escape confines of the prison. Plus, prisoner officials worry about safety and security because inmates could conceal weapons and other contraband in their hair. The Arkansas correctional facility has to figure out if their grooming policy is the least limiting way to deal with inmate beards.
As of today, forty three U.S. states allow prisoners to grow their facial hair. Prisons in those states have not dealt with a large number of challenges that Arkansas correctional facility proposed long beards would cause in jails and among inmates.
In a Holt v. Hobbs brief two timely cases from districts in close proximity to the Eighth are listed under the table of authorities; Yellowbear v. Lampbert and Cutter v. Wilkinsin. In 2013 a U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth District ruled in favor of Andrew Lambert, an inmate who filed a lawsuit against a Wyoming prison because it violated the RLUIPA Act by not allowing him to exercise his Native American religious tradition of using a sweat lodge. In 2005 the Supreme Court of the United States decided that in the Cutter v. Wilkinsin case that an Ohio prison violated the RLUIPA Act because it didn’t “accommodate nonmainstream religions” of inmates.
In the past, prisons had a hard time meeting its burden of showing its policy was the “least restrictive means necessary to further its compelling interest.” Based on cases that have been decided involving the RLUIPA Act in nearby U.S. Court of Appeals District Courts the Eighth district court is likely to rule in favor of inmate, Gregory Holt so he can freely exercise his Muslim religion by wearing a long beard.
Alabama and 17 others states filed a brief in the U.S. Supreme Court in which they support Arkansas prison administrators defense that its inmate grooming policy is needed to have safe space in the correctional facility.
Law professor and legal representative of Holt, Douglas Laycock, said that lower courts have been dismissive of RLUIPA cases. He said that the Holt v. Hobbs case was taken by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth circuit as an opportunity for the high court to take a religious provision of RLUIPA seriously. Alabama Solicitor General Andrew Brasher explained that there is a big difference between religious freedom of individuals in and out of a prison.
Prison officials must maintain order and safety among inmates. Enforcing facility policies is their way of asserting power to keep uniformity. Even though inmates do not have full Constitutional rights, the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment applies to prison inmates as well as the Model Sentencing and Corrections Act which gives some protection from discrimination on the basis of race, religion, national origin, or sex. However, inmates have limited rights to speech and religion.
In the Holt v. Hobbs case the court did not give deference to Arkansas’ correctional facility. The prison’s grooming policy prevented Holt from having a long religious beard which violated his Constitutional First Amendment right of freedom of religion. The U.S. high appellate court must use strict scrutiny judicial review when deciding the case by early in the next year of 2015.
Buckley, Ellen. Tenth Circuit: Summary Judgment for Prison Officials in RLUIPA Sweat Lodge Case Vacated, CBA CLE Legal Connection, N.p., (3 Feb. 2014), Web. Oct. 27, 2014. http://cbaclelegalconnection.com/2014/02/tenth-circuit-summary-judgment-prison-officials-rluipa-sweat-lodge-case-vacated/.
Hopkins, W. Wat. “Chapter 3 Conduct and Speech.” Communication and the Law, (2014 ed. Northport, Alabama: Vision, 2014), 46. Print.
Howe, Amy. Court to consider prison beard ban: In Plain English, SCOTUSblog, (Oct. 3, 2014, 12:02 PM), Web. Oct. 27, 2014. http://www.scotusblog.com/2014/10/218456/
No.13-6827 In the Supreme Court of the United States. Gregory Houston Holt A/K/A Abdul Maalik Muhammad, petitioner v. Ray Hobbs, Director, Arkansas Department of Correction, et al., Respondents. On writ of certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. Brief for the Petitioner, SCOTUSblog: Supreme Court of United States Blog.com, (May 22, 2014), Web. 27 Oct. 2014. http://sblog.s3.amazonaws.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/13-6827-ts.pdf
“Prisoners’ Rights.” LII / Legal Information Institute, N.p., n.d., Web. Oct. 27, 2014. http://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/prisoners_rights.