Gregory Holt, a devout Salafist Muslim, was incarcerated in an Arkansas prison. That prison banned inmates from having any facial hair, ostensibly for security purposes. But prisoners suffering from skin conditions were given an exception and allowed to grow quarter-inch beards, and both the federal government and most other states allowed inmates to wear beards for religious reasons. Holt requested an accommodation to grow a half-inch beard in accordance with his faith, but correctional officials denied that request.
In response, Holt filed suit, arguing that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, a statute that requires accommodations for prisoners’ religious practices in some circumstances, granted him the right to grow a beard. A federal trial court rejected his claims, and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit affirmed that decision. Although prison officials produced no evidence or other specific information suggesting that a half-inch beard posed any security threat or threatened any other harm, the courts concluded that they were bound to defer to the prison’s generalized invocation of security concerns.
After granting a temporary injunction allowing Holt to wear his beard, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review his case. In May 2014, we filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court in support of Holt. We observed that prison officials presented no evidence that a modest beard could put inmates or correctional officers in danger or make it easier for Holt to escape. And we pointed out that the prison’s policy disproportionately affected minority faiths, which was an especially significant concern because most of the prison officials who review prisoners’ requests for religious accommodations belong to majority religions.
Although we argued that an accommodation for Holt was required by RLUIPA in his case, we made clear that not all religious accommodations are appropriate. In particular, accommodations that would result in discrimination or otherwise harm third parties would violate the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause: “An exemption should not subject certain classes of people to the stigma of invidious discrimination, deny them access to public accommodations and services, or impose financial burdens on or strip benefits from them.”
In January 2015, a unanimous Supreme Court ruled that the prison’s refusal to permit Holt to grow a beard substantially burdened his religious exercise, and that the prison had failed to justify that burden. Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor filed a concurring opinion, stating that they joined the majority on the understanding that unlike the exemption sought from health-insurance contraceptive-coverage requirements in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, “accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.”