In 2015, Arkansas inmate Gregory Holt was the first person in the United States to successfully invoke the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to defend his religious liberty as a prisoner all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In Holt v. Hobbs, the high court unanimously ruled Holt should be allowed to grow a half-inch beard as a demonstration of his Muslim faith.
Congress passed RLUIPA in 2000, and though Liberties has often covered the “Religious Land Use” portion of the act, the “Institutionalized Persons” portion is seldom referenced.
But cases abound. Just in the last two weeks, courts across the country have ruled in response to complaints by inmates concerning poured-out prayer oil, confiscated religious books, religious services, prayer mats and religious beads, and dietary restrictions concerning Ramadan, as well as kosher and halal meal preparation.
The two seemingly unrelated issues—land use and incarcerated individuals—address one fundamental problem: government regulations that quash the free exercise of religion. The state’s compelling interest in maintaining order within its prisons often precludes inmates’ ability to follow religious observances.
In Holt’s case, Arkansas Department of Corrections policy prohibited beards. The only exception allowed men with a dermatological condition exacerbated by shaving to maintain a one-quarter-inch beard. Holt, convicted in 2010 of burglary and domestic battery, suggested a compromise: A half-inch growth would allow him to demonstrate his beard represented more than the medical exception, but less than the full beard he believed his Muslim beliefs compelled.
But the Arkansas DOC argued it had a “compelling government interest” in maintaining the policy: Holt’s half-inch beard would enable him and subsequent inmates to hide contraband and obscure their identities.
Every lower court rejected Holt’s plea, “emphasizing that prison officials are entitled to deference on security matters,” Justice Samuel Alito wrote in the Supreme Court’s decision on the case.
Holt represented himself through the appellate process until 2014, when University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock and Luke Goodrich, an attorney with Becket, argued his case before the Supreme Court. By then, Holt’s situation had garnered the support of a disparate group of civil libertarians and religious organizations that filed friend-of-the-court briefs on his behalf.
“The case is a signal, or instruction, for lower courts to take these cases more seriously,” Laycock told me.
Prior to RLUIPA’s passage, prison administrators routinely denied inmates the most basic religious accommodations in the interest of security, according to congressional testimony supporting the bill. In the name of security, officials have prohibited yamakas, prayer shawls, Catholic sacraments, religious texts, meetings with inmates of similar faith, and religious holy day observances, Goodrich told me. Only last year, after a 12-year legal battle, did Texas prisons provide kosher meals. Florida did likewise in 2016 after an inmate sued.
In one especially egregious case, an Oregon county district attorney in 1996 recorded a confessional between a priest and a man suspected in a triple murder. The community’s uproar over the violation of a fundamental religious rite rivaled its outcry for justice in the heinous crime that left three teenagers dead. (The prosecutor and defense attorneys listened to the recording but omitted it from the trial. The jury convicted Conan Wayne Hale and sentenced him to death row, where he remains.)
Prison officials have a hard task: They must first assess the sincerity of a religious request and then strike a balance between prison order and prison exceptions.
“We always have to weigh between gang activity and religious faith,” Ken Ellis, director and clinical chaplain at Phillips State Prison outside Atlanta, told me.
“As a chaplain, I stand as a proponent of defending the First Amendment right to worship the way that I see fit,” Ellis said. “Because I recognize a threat to my First Amendment rights is a threat to somebody else’s rights.”
But in 2005, the state of Ohio disagreed. In defending itself against RLUIPA claims from three inmates, the state argued to the Supreme Court that the law violated the First Amendment’s establishment clause by requiring it provide policy exemptions for religious but not secular purposes.
The Supreme Court disagreed—unanimously. The court ruled a state’s compelling interest in maintaining prison security does not come at the expense of inmates’ first freedom. And facilitating that freedom does not establish a religion.
“[Inmates] lose a lot of rights when they go to prison but they don’t lose their human dignity,” Goodrich said.
Few religious accommodation requests rise to the level of RLUIPA lawsuits, according to Ellis. Often simply providing a meeting time and place at an inmate’s request is sufficient. He said chaplains act as an inmate’s first defense of religious rites—regardless of the chaplain’s endorsing agency or own personal faith. Ellis does not officiate non-Christian services but will find volunteers to do so.
“Your role now is not only a representative of your faith group, but you are also a proponent of the First Amendment,” he said. “It is the chaplaincy department that makes sure the offenders have the right to express their freedom in their religion.”