Oct. 7, 2014
Today oral argument will be heard by the Supreme Court in Holt v. Hobbs, a case in which a Muslim prisoner is seeking to grow a ½ inch beard in compliance with his religious faith. The prison policy at issue actually permits ½ inch beards, but only for medical reasons. For this marginalization of his religion, Mr. Holt has sued under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), and is asking the Court to apply strict scrutiny (the same high standard of protection for religious rights required by RFRA and affirmed by the Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby) and protect his religious rights in the face of a discriminatory prison policy.
Many see the importance of protecting religious rights for prisoners, including those who have personally benefitted and come to faith through access to religious programs in prison. My law school colleague Jesse Wiese, now advocating for prisoners at the Justice Fellowship, is one of these; he has written about his experiences in support of Mr. Holt’s religious claim in this case. A win for Mr. Holt under RLUIPA in this case will protect all prisoners, regardless of faith. Along with protecting a Muslim prisoner who wants to grow a beard to a reasonable length (in keeping with the prison’s need to maintain order and discipline), the application of strict scrutiny here will strengthen the law’s protections for Jewish prisoners seeking dress or grooming accommodations, or those seeking access to Bible studies in prison. As it is said, a win for religious freedom for one is a win for religious freedom for all.
Moreover, a win for Mr. Holt here will strengthen protections for religious exercise in public spaces in the United States, something that groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation just can’t stand. Religion always has occupied a unique role in the public life of our country. We can expect the Supreme Court to again affirm that principle with a ruling for Mr. Holt in this case.