Monday, January 26, 2015

Religious Freedom and Beards: Unanimous SCOTUS tackles hairy issue

A Muslim prisoner in Arkansas named Abdul Malik Muhammad says that his faith requires him to maintain a beard.  But the Arkansas Department of Corrections's grooming policy prevents prisoners from growing beards (with a 1/4"-beard exception for prisoners with diagnosed dermatological problems).  As a compromise, Muhammad offered to keep his beard at 1/2", but the Department refused.

Should Muhammad be allowed to grow his beard?  Last week, the Supreme Court said yes.  More after the jump.

Muhammad won initial sympathy from a federal district-court judge in Arkansas who issued a temporary injunction against the Department enforcing its beard-ban.  But that judge eventually pulled the injunction and dismissed Muhammad's complaint upon learning that Muhammad had other ways of exercising his faith in prison and that the beard ban was designed to prevent inmate concealment of contraband.

Muhammad appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, which summarily affirmed the district court in a short, unsigned order.  The Supreme Court had the final word yesterday, reversing the Eighth Circuit in a unanimous 9-0 opinion authored by Justice Alito.

The case, titled Holt v. Hobbs (Muhammad's name was once Gregory Houston Holt), invokes a statute called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).  RLUIPA is similar to its better-known cousin, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which received considerable attention because of the Court's controversial 5-4 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. last term.

RLUIPA says that if the government wants to impose a substantial burden on a prisoner's exercise of religion, the government must prove that the burden survives "strict scrutiny" -- that is, the burden is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest.

In Holt, the "substantial burden" is easy to prove.  Nobody disputed the sincerity of Muhammad's religious beliefs.  The Department of Corrections's beard ban requires Muhammad to face discipline if he were to choose to follow his religious beliefs.

So does the ban on beards survive strict scrutiny?  Unfortunately, the Supreme Court didn't answer that question - the challenge was to half-inch beards in particular.  The Eighth Circuit rejected the "compelling governmental interests" asserted by the state: preventing prisoners from (1) hiding contraband and (2) disguising their identities.

It's not clear how much precedential value Holt carries for beards. At oral argument, Justice Scalia said: "I don't want to do these cases half-inch by half-inch."  But that's exactly what courts will have to do; the contraband-hiding analysis was limited to Muhammad's half-inch beard.  The government conceded that a full beard could pose real security risks that a half-inch beard would not.

Holt is valuable for reaffirming the value of the RLUIPA and RFRA statutes.  Hobby Lobby brought these statutes under increased public scrutiny: many questioned whether a religious employer should be exempt from providing insurance coverage for certain contraceptives to its employees.  Holt shows the "good" side of the statutes: allowing Muhammad to keep his beard is a result that most people can get behind.

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