9-0 Ruling Sheds Light on Religious Liberty

9-0 Ruling Sheds Light on Religious Liberty January 21, 2015

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


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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