Monday, March 3, 2014
The United States Supreme Court today granted certiorari in Holt [Muhammad] v. Hobbs, later issuing a clarifying order:
The petition for a writ of certiorari is granted limited to the following question: “whether the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, 42 U. S. C. §2000cc et seq., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one—half—inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.”
Recall that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act - - - RLUIPA - - - essentially reinstates the "strict scrutiny" standard of the pre-Smith [Employment Div. Dep't of Human Resources v. Smith] cases to a more limited set of circumstances than Congress did with RFRA, held unconstitutional as applied to the states as exceeding §5 of the Fourteenth Amendment in City of Boerne v. Flores. RLUIPA arguably gives prisoners more free exercise of religion protection than the general public, though in cases, prison security often provides a sufficient compelling governmental interest that is being further by the least restrictive means and thus overcome a prisoner's religious freedom.
Many RLUIPA claims concern grooming as I discuss in Dressing Constitutionally. For Muslim male inmates, the question of facial hair has been prominent. While some circuits have rejected RLUIPA claims, crediting the administrative costs of special scissors necessary to not completely shave prisoners, other courts have upheld RLUIPA claims, finding that prison officials did not satisfy the compelling government standard achieved by the least restrictive means.
The Eighth Circuit's opinion in Holt v. Hobbs is typically cursory at three pages. Here's the court's analysis:
we conclude that defendants met their burden under RLUIPA of establishing that ADC’s grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling penological interest, see Fegans v. Norris, 537 F.3d 897, 903 (8th Cir. 2008) (absent substantial evidence in record indicating that response of prison officials to security concerns is exaggerated, courts should ordinarily defer to their expert judgment in such matters), notwithstanding Mr. Holt’s citation to cases indicating that prisons in other jurisdictions have been able to meet their security needs while allowing inmates to maintain facial hair, see id. at 905 (although prison policies from other jurisdictions provide some evidence as to feasibility of implementing less restrictive means of achieving prison safety and security, it does not outweigh deference owed to expert judgment of prison officials who are more familiar with their own institutions).
The court's reliance on Fegans v. Norris, involving the Arkansas Department of Corrections restriction on hair length for male (but not female) inmates, is not surprising. Fegans is a particularly deferential decision by the Eighth Circuit - - - it almost seems as if the court applied rational basis rather than the strict scrutiny required by RLUIPA.
The Court's grant of certiorari in Holt v. Hobbs might bring some clarity to the religious freedom for prisoners in the grooming context.