9-0 Ruling Sheds Light on Religious Liberty

The Supreme Court issued a rare 9-0 ruling in a case involving religion this week. The case, Holt v Hobbs involved a Muslim prison inmate who sought to grow a half-inch beard as his religious beliefs demand. The prison rules force him to shave. The court unanimously ruled that those rules violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

Justice Alito, who very rarely comes down on the side of any plaintiff against the police or criminal justice system, wrote the majority opinion. He rightly scoffed at the argument made by the prison:

We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities, but the argument that this interest would be seriously compromised by allowing an inmate to grow a 1⁄2-inch beard is hard to take seriously. As noted, the Magistrate Judge observed that it was “almost preposterous to think that [petitioner] could hide contraband” in the short beard he had grown at the time of the evidentiary hearing. An item of contraband would have to be very small indeed to be concealed by a 1⁄2-inch beard, and a prisoner seeking to hide an item in such a short beard would have to find a way to prevent the item

from falling out. Since the Department does not demand that inmates have shaved heads or short crew cuts, it is

hard to see why an inmate would seek to hide contraband in a 1⁄2-inch beard rather than in the longer hair on his

head.

Very hard to argue with that, though I would argue that this should have nothing to do with the inmate’s religious belief. Religion inmates should not get privileges that non-religious inmates do not get. If the policy violates the rights of inmates with no compelling purpose, it should be overturned for everyone. There were two concurring opinions in the case, one by Justice Ginsburg and one by Justice Sotomayor (who also joined Ginsburg’s concurrence). Justice Ginsburg’s short concurrence spells out why this case differs from Hobby Lobby:

“Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief. On that understanding, I join the Court’s opinion.”

Exactly right. Ian Millhiser called my attention to United States v Lee, a 1982 Supreme Court ruling involving the question of whether the Amish were required to pay the Social Security matching tax for employees of their businesses. In that ruling, Chief Justice Burger wrote:

Congress and the courts have been sensitive to the needs flowing from the Free Exercise Clause, but every person cannot be shielded from all the burdens incident to exercising every aspect of the right to practice religious beliefs. When 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.

This is a critical distinction that the court ran roughshod over in the Hobby Lobby ruling. You can read the full ruling in the Holt case here.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • paul

    Are Jewish inmates allowed to grow short beards? I would be surprised if this did not come up at some point in the discussion. If a Jew is permitted a beard for religious reasons, then so should a Muslim.

  • eric

    @1: AIUI the faclity banned beards for all inmates without distinction. It just happened to be a muslim plaintiff who decided to take the issue to court because he said it violated his religious freedoms.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    This is a critical distinction that the court ran roughshod over in the Hobby Lobby ruling.

    WRONG!!! THE CRITCIAL DIFFERENCES ARE THAT THE SURPEME COURT INTERPRETS THE CONSTITUTION PROPERLY NOW!!! ALSO LEE WASNT EVEN A CORPORATE CITIZEN!!!

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    eric “@1: AIUI the faclity banned beards for all inmates without distinction.”

    What about inmates with distinction?

  • dingojack

    Full ‘Brazilians’ for all inmates* — wouldn’t want them criminals hiding stuff if their thick, tangled pubic hair would we?

    @@ Dingo

    —————

    * back, sack and crack

  • dingojack

    Perhaps we should institute completely filling the alimentary canal of convicts with foam-rubber, it’ll stop inmates carrying contraband internally, won’t it?

    Dingo

  • latveriandiplomat

    Really wish this decision was not based on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, but instead based on the principle that prisoners should not be subject to arbitrary rules with no real (i.e., non-BS purpose).

    If the warden decides that all inmates should only go from their cell to the yard by hopping on one foot, does that violate anyone’s religion?

    Is there some other statutory protection the Court could have cited instead or in addition to the one about religion?

    Would the unusual portion of “cruel and unusual” cover it?

  • hoku

    I predict the result is that the prison now requires inmates to shave their heads.

  • caseloweraz

    Justice Alito: We readily agree that the Department has a compelling interest in staunching the flow of contraband into and within its facilities… (Emphasis added.)

    Vocabulary squad — proceed to the Supreme Court building and stanch the incorrect usage of Justice Samuel Alito.

  • http://howlandbolton.com richardelguru

    @caseloweraz

    ??

    Seems OK to me. Are you querying the spelling?

    Earliest attestation in the OED (online):

    a1400 Seuyn Sag. (W.) 1136 For al that heuer he mighte do, His menesoun might nowt staunche tho.

  • http://en.uncyclopedia.co/wiki/User:Modusoperandi Modusoperandi

    Not “staunch”. “Stanch”.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=153100784 Michael Brew

    Religion inmates should not get privileges that non-religious inmates do not get. If the policy violates the rights of inmates with no compelling purpose, it should be overturned for everyone.

    I was just having a similar conversation with my roommate concerning Army uniform regs, actually. They require men, for instance, to keep their hair very short, especially on the sides, while women not only can wear their hair as long as they want as long as it can be put into a bun, but they aren’t allowed to shave their heads like men are often encouraged to do. It’s really just enforcement of gender norms, despite all the talk about “proper wear of the ACH” and “the seal on the pro-mask.” If it was about that, women and men would have the same standard. It’s about control.