Supreme Court

Today at SCOTUS: Prison Security vs. Inmates' Religious Liberty


The U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral argument today in the case of Holt v. Hobbs. At issue is the Arkansas Department of Corrections' refusal to allow a Muslim inmate named Gregory Houston Holt (also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammed) to grow a one-half inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. According to state officials, the no-beard policy is essential to maintaining safety and security. It prevents inmates from hiding contraband on their persons, those officials claim, and also prevents inmates from changing their appearance by shaving.

But the mere assertion of such rationales is not sufficient by itself to justify this restriction. In order to pass muster, the prison's no-beard policy must satisfy the terms of a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which holds: "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise" of prisoners residing in institutions that receive federal funding, unless the government can demonstrate that the burden furthers "a compelling government interest" and "is the least restrictive means" of doing so. If that language sounds familiar, it's because the RLUIPA largely borrowed it from the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the federal law recently invoked by the Supreme Court in the Obamacare case Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc.

In this case, the law is squarely on Holt's side. As his lawyers at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty observe in their main brief, "forty-four other state and federal prisons with the same security interests allow the beards that Arkansas forbids." In other words, while prison security is undoubtedly a "compelling government interest," the no-beard policy is far from the "least restrictive means" of achieving it.

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For its part, Arkansas maintains that its correctional officers are entitled to broad deference from the courts. But that argument not only fails to satisfy the strict requirements of the RLUIPA, it also runs counter to an important 19th century precedent set by Justice Stephen Field, one of the Supreme Court's first great conservative jurists. In the 1879 Circuit Court case of Ah Kow v. Nunan, Justice Field confronted a San Francisco ordinance which required all male prisoners in the county jail to have their hair "cut or clipped to an uniform length of one inch from the scalp." City officials claimed it was a public health regulation, but in fact the law's real purpose was to humiliate male Chinese immigrants, who commonly wore their hair in long braided ponytails known as a queues. This "queue ordinance" (as it was known throughout the city) was just one of the many racist and xenophobic regulations passed by California officials in response to the arrival of Chinese immigrants.

Field struck it from the books. To describe the "hostile and spiteful" queue ordinance as a valid health measure "is notoriously a mere pretense," he declared. "The ordinance acts with special severity upon Chinese prisoners, inflicting upon them suffering altogether disproportionate to what would be endured by other prisoners if enforced against them."

Field's logic holds equal force in the present case. A prison regulation which harms religious minorities in a manner that is "altogether disproportionate to what would be endured by other prisoners" deserves no deference from the Supreme Court.

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  1. But, but, but… Terrorism!

  2. For its part, Arkansas maintains that its correctional officers are entitled to broad deference from the courts.

    Why is that always the excuse? “Yeah, this might not be constitutional, but you guys shouldn’t question us because we’re the government!”

    1. Why is ANYONE entitled to broad deference from the courts? Aren’t they supposed to be acting as a check? How do you do that with “broad deference”?

      1. Because democracy is holy writ, and if the 51% want to piss all over the rights of the 49%, well, tough shit.

  3. One half an inch?! How can that be enough to “hide contraband”??? Mere pretense indeed.

    1. Given how dense my beard is, half an inch of beard hair is enough to hide a shiv in – if you don’t mind taking the risk of getting stabbed in the throat.

  4. We have real problems in this country about sending the wrong people to prison. Too many people are in prison for things that shouldn’t be crimes or if they should be crimes shouldn’t warrant prison and too many innocent people are in prison. That problem, however is separate from what prison should entail for the people who go there. In short, fuck this asshole. You want grow a beard and show how you are down with Allah, don’t get thrown in jail. If this guy can grow a beard, why can’t a woman wear a burkha in prison, why can’t a Pagan have animal sacrifices? Prisoners should get whatever religious liberty that is consistent with the orderly and secure running of the prison. A beard that can be easily shaved off after escape is not consistent with that. I can’t believe this case is being considered.

    1. This

      For whatever reason, the criminal justice reform advocates always focus on crappy cases to illustrate the need for reform, like the crazy bitch having sex in public a couple of weeks ago and the thug in Ferguson.

      The average person looks at these cases, sees criminal assholes and thinks that reform advocates are exaggerating the problem or pro-criminal.

      Which is nuts because there’s thousands of cases every year of average people being fucked over that go all but unreported.

      It’s almost like the media is neutering the reform movement by focusing on such marginal cases, or something.

      1. They focus on the worst cases possible. They never focus on things that matter and really do fuck innocent people. How about instead of using their time and energy on this asshole, they do something productive like getting states to grant ROR bail more often so innocent people who are too poor to pay a bondsman don’t rot in jail for months awaiting trail or go after universal strip search policies even for those arrested non violent minor crimes. NOO they can’t do that. Instead they have to make sure Omar can keep his fucking beard.

        1. The Becket Fund is a religious liberty organization. They’re not a prisoners’-rights organization except to the extent the government violates prisoners’ religious liberty.

          They’ve defended the right of a Santeria guy to practice his religion, the right of a Christian homeless shelter to operate, you know, that kind of thing.

          1. The Santeria guy wanted to do sacrifices in his house, not in prison.

            1. Oh, and they defended a business called Hobby Lobby.

              Since the institutionalized-person statute uses the same legal standards as RFRA, any pro-religion decision is going to help set precedents for RFRA.

        2. Because this has nothing to do with prison reform, this is about America being mean to the poor Muslims. If this guy was Amish, it would be a non-story.

          1. The Becket Fund is a Religious Right group. They think religious freedom is good for *everyone.*

  5. Ramifications for the military?

    1. Can’t get a good seal on a gas mask with a beard…. wasn’t that the rational? Dunno, just asking.

      1. If you do not get a good seal on your gas mask, you will become dead marines and then you will be in a world of shit because marines are not allowed to die without permission. Do you maggots understand?

  6. A few notes on “Justice Stephen Field, one of the Supreme Court’s first great conservative jurists.” Field dissented from the Court’s decision in Strauder v. West Virgina, in which the Court held that states could not exclude blacks from juries. Field also voted for the most notorious anti-black case of all Plessy v. Ferguson. So I guess Stevo was down with the Chinese but not the blacks who “arguably” were entitled to greater protection than other minorities, thanks to the 15th amendment.

    It seems to me, Damon, that you’re setting the bar for “great conservative jurists” pretty goddamn low. Just sayin’.

  7. Prisoners hide razor blades in their cheeks, and thumbtack points in their penises, a beard is not necessary. For fuck’s sake have none of these people ever actually been to prison?

    1. It’s not fair that this guy gets to hde things easier than the othet inmates. In a fight, the other guy has to pull down his pants to get his thumbtack point while this guy can pull a 2 foot long scimitar out of his beard. Not cool.

  8. Bear in mind that, as this list of members of the Board of Directors shows, the Becket Fund is what you might call a Religious Right organization.

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