Today, in Holt v. Hobbs, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous opinion (authored by Justice Alito) holding that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLIUPA”) provided a Muslim inmate the right to exercise his religion by growing a ½ inch beard.

Like RFRA, RLIUPA applies strict scrutiny to prisoners’ religious rights claims, and provides that the government may not burden prisoners’ religious exercise (even through a law of general applicability) unless the government can show that the burden furthers a compelling government interest by the least restrictive means.

In this case, Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, wished to grow a ½ inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Prison policy only permitted ¼ inch beards, however, and even then only for medical reasons. The Arkansas Department of Corrections (“DOC”) did not dispute the sincerity of Holt’s belief, or that its regulation burdened this belief.

However, the DOC argued that it had a compelling interest in its policy in order to prevent contraband in the prison, and that it advanced this interest through the least restrictive means.

While the Court agreed that correctional facilities have a compelling interest in eliminating contraband, it disagreed that the DOC’s policy here advanced that interest, noting that not much could be hidden in a ½ inch beard. Additionally, the Court observed that if a ½ inch beard could hide contraband, a prisoner could also hide contraband in his hair (which could be longer than ½ inch). Indeed, contraband could be hidden in longer hair (or in clothing) much more easily. Yet the DOC did not require prisoners to go around with shaved heads or without clothing. The DOC contended that the ½ inch beard requested by Mr. Holt is longer than the ¼ inch beard permitted for medical reasons, but the DOC has failed to show how this ¼ difference would cause a security risk. In addition, the DOC argued that few inmates request medical exemptions, while many would request religious exemptions. But the Court rejected this reasoning because the DOC had not argued that its refusal to allow religious exemptions was based on cost control or for administrative reasons.

While Justice Alito recognized that deference is due to prison officials’ policy decisions because of the unique and dangerous environment in which they operate, he also noted that such officials still must be held to RLUIPA’s statutory requirements. They did not meet those requirements in this case.

Moreover, as the Court noted, even if the DOC could show this compelling interest was advanced by its policy, it was not advancing it via the least restrictive means. For instance, its security concerns could be satisfied by searching Mr. Holt’s beard rather than making him cut it. The DOC already searches all prisoners’ hair and clothing; why couldn’t it search a beard just the same? The DOC argued that guards could be cut by razors while searching a beard, but they could also be cut during searches of hair and clothing. Even assuming that searching a beard is unsafe for guards, the DOC never showed why it could not have Holt run a comb through his beard to search for contraband.

The DOC also argued it could restrict beards because it had a compelling interest in preventing prisoners from disguising their identities, and escaping or avoiding capture. While the Court did not disagree that the DOC has an interest in quickly and efficiently identifying prisoners, the DOC had not shown why it could not take photos of prisoners so they could be identified with and without beards. The DOC also argued that while this method may work with escaped prisoners, photos would be unhelpful in preventing prisoners from quickly shaving and entering restricted areas in prison. Yet the Court was unpersuaded by the DOC’s arguments; in its view, the DOC failed to explain why the photo method would not work when it had worked at other prisons, and failed to show how a prisoner with a ¼ inch beard for medical reasons could not also pose the same security risk as that purportedly posed by Mr. Holt.

The Court observed that while deference to prison officials is justified, blind deference is not. While the DOC is not required to show in every respect why it has not adopted the procedures of other prison systems, its rejection of them without a good reason is persuasive evidence of its failure to meet RLUIPA. The Court made sure to point out that this does not put prisons in an impossible position; they still have reason to restrict religious practices when they are being used to cloak prohibited conduct or abused in a manner which undermines the prison’s compelling interests.

While the Court was unanimous, Justice Ginsburg took the opportunity to write a one-paragraph concurring opinion (which Justice Sotomayor joined) stating she joined the Court’s opinion with the “understanding” that “[u]nlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, . . . accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.” This statement likely refers to Justice Ginsburg’s belief that the successful RFRA claim in Hobby Lobby “harmed” women seeking contraceptives, while Mr. Holt’s claim does not. I disagree with Justice Ginsburg on this point, but I’ll reserve that discussion for another time.

Showing some sympathy to prison officials, Justice Sotomayor also wrote a concurring opinion in which she emphasized her understanding that the Court was not repudiating the idea that prison officials’ justifications should be offered some deference; rather, the Court was rightly skeptical of the justifications offered in this case. Indeed, the DOC’s “failure to demonstrate why the less restrictive policies [Mr. Holt] identified in the course of the litigation were insufficient to achieve its compelling interests” was what was ultimately fatal to its case, not the Court’s “independent judgment” of these matters. In addition, “least restrictive means,” in Justice Sotomayor’s opinion, did not mean that government officials need to consider and reject every conceivable alternative to satisfy RLUIPA; rather, they must consider the alternatives posed. In this case, the DOC failed to do that.

The Supreme Court ruled correctly in holding that Mr. Holt’s right to religious exercise under RLUIPA was violated because the DOC could not show it was advancing a compelling government interest, or that it was doing so through the least restrictive means.  RLUIPA clearly sets forth the hurdles the government has to overcome when burdening a prisoner’s religious beliefs, and the DOC failed to meet them here.

But this case is significant for another reason: It affirms our belief that religious liberty is intricately connected to and flows from our inherent human dignity. It cannot be taken away from us, even if we are imprisoned. While prisons have legitimate interests of their own, incarceration does not eliminate the fundamental human right of freedom of religion.

This case is a win for Mr. Holt. But the next time an inmate (perhaps with different beliefs) is facing some other burdensome regulation, he’ll be able to draw support from Mr. Holt’s precedent. In this way, a bulwark of religious liberty protections continues to be built, one component at a time. As it is said, a win for religious liberty for one is a win for religious liberty for all.