This Is What A Legitimate Religious Liberty Claim Looks Like

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Five days after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) vetoed a bill intended to give anti-gay business owners a broad right to discriminate so long as they claimed a religious justification for doing so, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case that’s an important reminder that not all so-called “religious liberty” claims can be so easily dismissed. On Monday, the justices announced that they will hear Holt v. Hobbs, a case brought by a Muslim prisoner who wishes to grow a beard in order to comply with his personal religious beliefs. And, unlike a much more high profile case involving whether religious employers may deny birth control benefits to their employees, the law in Holt weighs strongly in favor of religious liberty.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) gives prison inmates robust religious liberty protections against prison policies that “substantially burden” their ability to exercise their faith. The plaintiff in Holt, who is named in the lawsuit as “Gregory Houston Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad,” claims that he should be exempted, on religious grounds, from a prison policy forbidding any facial hair beyond a “trimmed mustache.”

What makes this case interesting is that the prison asserts fairly legitimate reasons for its facial hair policy, specifically, “that the grooming policy helped prevent inmates from concealing contraband, drugs, or weapons; that an inmate who grew a beard could change his appearance quickly by shaving; that affording special privileges to an individual inmate could result in his being targeted by other inmates; and that prison officials believed the grooming policy was necessary to further ADC’s interest in prison security.” Indeed, if Mr. Muhammad wanted to wander around the prison grounds looking like a cast member from Duck Dynasty, his claim would be much weaker. It’s not difficult to imagine an inmate hiding contraband in a very long beard.

But Muhammad’s also offered to compromise with prison officials by only growing a half-inch beard — which would make it very difficult for him to conceal objects in his facial hair. Similarly, it’s not at all clear that prison officials can’t find other ways to alleviate their concerns about what could go wrong if Muhammad grows a relatively short beard. If they are afraid that he might suddenly change his appearance, for example, they can prevent him from keeping razor blades or other objects he might use to shave himself.

The fact that alternative ways may exist to accommodate the prison’s needs while still enabling Muhammad to grow a beard is important because the RLUIPA statute requires the government to show that, when it imposes a substantial religious burden on an inmate, it has used the “least restrictive means of furthering” its interest in doing so. So if the prison can achieve its objective of maintaining security in another way, Muhammad stands on strong legal ground.

Significantly, Muhammad’s case also does not appear to run afoul of a principle that is woven into decades worth of Supreme Court religious liberty cases. Generally speaking, the Supreme Court has been hesitant to allow one person’s religious liberty to trample another person’s legal rights. And this is especially true when a business or business owner tries to claim exemptions from commercial regulation. As the Supreme Court explained in United States v. Lee, “[w]hen followers of a particular sect enter into commercial activity as a matter of choice, the limits they accept on their own conduct as a matter of conscience and faith are not to be superimposed on the statutory schemes which are binding on others in that activity.” Granting overbroad exemptions to employers “operates to impose the employer’s religious faith on the employees.”

But Mr. Muhammad is not attempting to impose his beliefs upon others. He merely wants to grow a fairly short beard that is unlikely to harm any of the prison’s interests in maintaining security. If the prison can demonstrate otherwise, than so be it. But until they do so, Muhammad’s case is likely to stand as a reminder that religious liberty can and should be protected so long as it is not wielded to impose one person’s beliefs on another.