Bench Memos

9-0 SCOTUS Decision Clarifies Contours of Religious Freedom

The Supreme Court today handed down a unanimous decision in Holt v. Hobbs supporting the religious freedom of a Muslim prisoner who wanted to grow a ½-inch beard contrary to prison grooming regulations.  This decision is good news for the cause of religious freedom, not only because it shows broad support across the judicial spectrum, but also because it clarified the ways in which current religious freedom law offers “expansive protection for religious liberty.”

The legal test in this case (set forth in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, RLUIPA) is identical to the language in the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (RFRA) applied in the Hobby Lobby case last term, which in turn essentially duplicates the strict scrutiny standard used for infringements of other fundamental rights in constitutional law.  With this standard in mind, the prison officials didn’t even try to argue that prisoner Holt’s religious exercise had not been burdened; add “shaving a beard” to the numerous types of religious exercise that are enough to “substantially burden” the exercise of religion.  The Court’s unanimous conclusion on this point is a reminder that the “substantial burden” language in RLUIPA and RFRA can be met by actions that many people may deem inconsequential but that nonetheless are forbidden by certain faiths.  This emphasizes that it is the religiously-motivated view of an action, not the unbelieving bystander’s judgment of its importance, that determines whether a burden is substantial.  That is particularly important where, as here, courts are dealing with a minority or unpopular religion.

The Court also clarified some key points respecting substantial burdens.  First, it noted that permission to engage in many other aspects of religions exercise – here, praying daily, keeping a prayer rug, corresponding with religious advisors, keeping a halal diet, and observing religious holidays – does not cancel out the effect of denying Holt the ability to carry out his simultaneous religious obligation to grow a beard.  Additionally, the Court corrected a misunderstanding below that only “compelled” religious practices could be substantially burdened or that disagreements within the Muslim community about the necessity of growing a beard meant curtailing that ability was not a substantial burden.  After all, courts have no business making a judgment call about the fundamentally theological questions of how much religious practice is “enough” or which view of a certain religion is correct.

Because the beard ban substantially burdened prisoner Holt’s religious exercise, the government had to show a compelling government interest in requiring clean-shaven prisoners and that the regulation was narrowly tailored to advance that interest. 

The Court first explained that generalized interests like “prison safety and security” were not enough to meet the compelling interest standard.  Instead, the government interest for both RLUIPA and RFRA must address why the government has an interest in applying a particular policy to a particular person. 

On that question, the prison officials had maintained that beards could be used to hide contraband or to prevent prisoners from easily disguising their appearance.  But the ability of prison guards to simply search beards as they already do with hair and clothing meant that there was a less restrictive means to achieve the first objective.  And the ability to take photos for identification without a beard, coupled with the fact that prisons allow hair in mustaches and on heads that could also be shaven to effect a disguise, showed that the beard ban was not narrowly tailored to the second.

Finally, the Court made a point that further underscores the strength of religious freedom protections, noting that government reluctance to grant religious exemptions because “if I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody” is never sufficient to overcome a RLUIPA challenge.  Bureaucratic efficiency (if such a thing is even possible) does not trump religious freedom. 

The decision cautioned that RLUIPA cases must take into account the prison environment, that only sincere religious belief and not attempts to use religious practice as a pretext for illegal activity are protected, and that abuse of a religious exemption undermining the prison’s compelling interests could justify removing that exemption.  So the government didn’t go away completely empty-handed.

There were two concurrences in the case.  First, Justice Ginsburg distinguished Hobby Lobby from this case in a one-paragraph statement noting that Holt’s religious practice “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share [his] belief.”  Justice Sotomayor wrote to underscore that prisons should receive some deference as long as their policies were grounded on more than “mere speculation” and that they need not try every least restrictive means but only refute those proposed by the prisoner in litigation to succeed.

Carrie Severino is chief counsel and policy director to the Judicial Crisis Network.

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