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Workplace Issues: SCOTUS finds inmate has religious right to beard

Petitioner Gregory Holt is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a ½ -inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. The petitioner’s objection to shaving the beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition.

Lindy Korn

Lindy Korn

The Supreme Court of the United States held that the department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits a state or local government from taking any action that substantially burdens the religious exercise of an institutionalized person unless the government demonstrates that the action constitutes the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest, (Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S.____2015, decided Jan. 20).

Under RLUIPA, the challenging party bears the initial burden of proving that his religious exercise is grounded in a sincerely held religious belief.

Once the challenging party satisfies his burden, the burden shifts to the government to show that substantially burdening the religious exercise of the particular claimant is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. The court held that the department fails to show that enforcing its beard prohibition against petitioner furthers its compelling interests in preventing prisoners from hiding contraband and disguising their identities.

The petitioner argues that requiring inmates to be photographed both with and without beards is a less restrictive means of solving the department’s identification and security concerns. The department also allows beards of ¼ inch for prisoners with medical conditions and more than ½  inch of hair on the head. The court notes that the department’s failure to pursue its proffered objectives with regards to such analogous nonreligious conduct suggests that its interests could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree.

Additionally, the court acknowledges that the majority of states and the federal government can permit inmates to grow ½ inch beards, either for any reason or for religious purposes.

Such evidence requires a prison, at a minimum, to offer persuasive reasons why it believes it must take a different course.

Several provisions of RLUIPA underscore its expansive protection for religious liberty. Congress defined religious exercise capaciously to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief.” Congress mandated that this concept shall be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution (Section 2000cc-3(g)).

Institutionalized persons are thus afforded some protections as to their religious exercise, and in this case the inmate’s ½ inch beard is found to be an appropriate religious accommodation.

Lindy Korn practices at The Law Office of Lindy Korn and can be reached at, (716) 856-KORN (5676) or