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Supreme Court preview: Beards, religion and prison

August 20, 2014 by Andrew Lowy


As the next Supreme Court terms near in October, Constitution Daily previews big cases before the Court. First up: beard lengths and religious rights in jail.

gregoryhholtCase: Holt v. Hobbs

Questions Presented: “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 sec., to the extent that it prohibits petitioner from growing a one-half-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs.”

Court: United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Case Dates: Scheduled for oral argument on October 8, 2014

Case History: Appealed from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas-Pine Bluff to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit. The Eighth Circuit Court ruled per curiam to uphold the district court’s dismissal of the case. Writ of certiorari submitted to the Supreme Court and granted on March 3, 2014.

Decision: 3-0 in favor of the appellee. Opinion per curiam.

Background Information: Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, filed a motion in the district court challenging the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy. The policy prohibits inmates from growing beards with an exception for medical reasons. The exception allows for beards no longer than a quarter-inch beard for inmates with a diagnosed dermatological problem. Holt challenged the policy under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He argued that his growing a beard constitutes one his fundamentalist Muslim beliefs and that the Department of Correction’s policy poses a substantial burden on his practice of Islam.

Majority Reasoning: RLUIPA justifies a substantial burden on an inmate’s religious practices only if the imposition is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling state interest. The evidentiary hearing before the district court revealed that the grooming policy is tailored to fulfill the following government interests: 1) prevent inmates from concealing contraband, drugs, and/or weapons; 2) prevent an inmate from quickly changing his appearance by shaving; and 3) further the Department of Correction’s interest in prison security.

Evidence was also shown that the appellant was afforded certain other privileges pertinent to practicing his religion—possession of a prayer rug, correspondence with a religious advisor, maintenance of religious diet, and observation of religious holidays. Since Islamic law says to “leave the beard (as it is),” Holt proposed that he be allowed to grow a half-inch beard as a compromise with the policy.

Despite the appellant’s citation of correctional facilities in forty-four other states—which afforded similar compromises in regard to religious facial hair—the district court (and subsequently, the circuit court) found the grooming policy to be the least restrictive means of furthering valid, and compelling, state interests.

The Eighth Circuit Court affirmed the district court’s dismissal; however, the circuit court overturned the district court’s order that the dismissal count as a “strike” under 28 U.S.C. § 1915(g). 28 U.S.C. § 1915 addresses proceedings in forma pauperis. Section g precludes prisoners from bringing civil action or appealing civil action if the prisoner has had three or more cases dismissed on frivolous or malicious grounds, or failure “to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.”

Note: Constitution Daily intern Andrew Lowy did much of the research for this preview.

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