WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court unanimously delivered a victory for the religious liberty of prison inmates Tuesday (Jan. 20).
The justices ruled the Arkansas Department of Corrections violated the religious free exercise of a Muslim prisoner by prohibiting him from growing a beard in order to practice his beliefs. The high court found the prison system failed to abide by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 federal law.
Religious freedom advocates hailed the 9-0 decision as an important win.
Ethicist Russell Moore commended the Supreme Court for doing “the right thing.”
“Religious liberty isn’t a prize earned by those with the most political clout,” said Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “Religious liberty is a right given by God to all people. The Court here respected liberty of conscience and free exercise.
“Christians and others should be glad, especially in a time when the most basic religious liberties are routinely dismissed in many corners of our national debate,” he said in a written release. “Thomas Jefferson would be proud of this good decision.”
The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty — which represented the prisoner, Abdul Muhammad, in the case — described the decision as a milestone for all faiths.
“No religion is an island,” Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Becket Fund, said. “This is not just a win for one prisoner in Arkansas, but a win for all Americans who value religious liberty.”
The religious freedom victory came in a challenge by Muhammad, also known as Gregory Holt, to a prison policy that banned beards on prisoners unless they have a skin disease. The prison system provided no exemption for religious reasons. The Arkansas Department of Corrections contended its policy was to prevent prisoners from hiding contraband in their beards and to keep inmates from disguising their identities.
Muhammad proposed a limit of one-half inch to his beard, but the prison rejected it. A federal judge and the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis ruled in the prison system’s favor.
RLUIPA prohibits government policies that substantially burden free exercise of religion by inmates and, in land-use cases, by a person or institution. However, a legal exemption can be claimed by the government by showing it has a “compelling interest” and is using the “least restrictive means” to further that interest.
Associate Justice Samuel Alito, writing for the Supreme Court, said the prison policy substantially burdened Muhammad’s religious free exercise. The prison, Alito wrote, failed to demonstrates its rule was the “least restrictive means” to advance its interests.
The lower courts “deferred to these prison officials’ mere say-so that they could not accommodate petitioner’s request,” Alito wrote. “RLUIPA, however, demands much more.”
At least 43 state, federal and local prison systems allow beards on inmates, according to the Becket Fund.
“[W]hen so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the [Arkansas Department of Corrections] failed to make that showing here,” Alito said.
The Supreme Court, Rassbach said in a written statement, “repeated a fundamental American principle today: government doesn’t get to ride roughshod over religious practices. Where government can accommodate religion, it ought to.”
The Obama administration and a diverse group of organizations filed briefs in support of Muhammad. Among these were Prison Fellowship, American Civil Liberties Union, Alliance Defending Freedom, Muslim Public Affairs Council, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and the Christian Legal.
The case was Holt v. Hobbs.
— by Tom Strode | BP