Holt v. Hobbs
574 U.S. ___ (2015)



No. 13–6827



on writ of certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the eighth circuit

[January 20, 2015]

Justice Alito delivered the opinion of the Court.

Petitioner Gregory Holt, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is an Arkansas inmate and a devout Muslim who wishes to grow a 1∕2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Petitioner’s objection to shaving his beard clashes with the Arkansas Department of Correction’s grooming policy, which prohibits inmates from growing beards unless they have a particular dermatological condition. We hold that the Department’s policy, as applied in this case, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), 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.

We conclude in this case that the Department’s policy substantially burdens petitioner’s religious exercise. Although we do not question the importance of the Department’s interests in stopping the flow of contraband and facilitating prisoner identification, we do doubt whether the prohibition against petitioner’s beard furthers its compelling interest about contraband. And we conclude that the Department has failed to show that its policy is the least restrictive means of furthering its compelling interests. We thus reverse the decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.


Congress enacted RLUIPA and its sister statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 (RFRA), “in order to provide very broad protection for religious liberty.”  RFRA was enacted three years after our decision in Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U. S. 872 (1990) , which held that neutral, generally applicable laws that incidentally burden the exercise of religion usually do not violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Smith largely repudiated the method of analysis used in prior free exercise cases....

Following our decision in Smith, Congress enacted RFRA in order to provide greater protection for religious exercise than is available under the First Amendment.....In making RFRA applicable to the States and their subdivisions, Congress relied on Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment, but in City of Boerne v. Flores, this Court held that RFRA exceeded Congress’ powers under that provision.

Congress responded to City of Boerne by enacting RLUIPA, which applies to the States and their subdivisions and invokes congressional authority under the Spending and Commerce Clauses. RLUIPA concerns two areas of government activity: Section 2 governs land-use regulation, and Section 3—the provision at issue in this case—governs religious exercise by institutionalized persons. Section 3 mirrors RFRA and provides that “[n]o government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution . . . even if the burden results from a rule of general applicability, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person––(1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.” RLUIPA thus allows prisoners “to seek religious accommodations pursuant to the same standard as set forth in RFRA.”

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.” And Congress stated that RLUIPA “may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise.”

Petitioner, as noted, is in the custody of the Arkansas Department of Correction and he objects on religious grounds to the Department’s grooming policy, which provides that “[n]o inmates will be permitted to wear facial hair other than a neatly trimmed mustache that does not extend beyond the corner of the mouth or over the lip.” The policy makes no exception for inmates who object on religious grounds, but it does contain an exemption for prisoners with medical needs. The policy provides that “failure to abide by [the Department’s] grooming standards is grounds for disciplinary action.”

Petitioner sought permission to grow a beard and, although he believes that his faith requires him not to trim his beard at all, he proposed a “compromise” under which he would grow only a 1∕2-inch beard. Prison officials denied his request, and the warden told him: “You will abide by policies and if you choose to disobey, you can suffer the consequences.”

Petitioner filed a pro se complaint in Federal District Court challenging the grooming policy under RLUIPA.... We entered an injunction pending resolution of petitioner’s petition for writ of certiorari, and we then granted certiorari.


Under RLUIPA, petitioner bore the initial burden of proving that the Department’s grooming policy implicates his religious exercise. RLUIPA protects “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief,” but, of course, a prisoner’s request for an accommodation must be sincerely based on a religious belief and not some other motivation. Here, the religious exercise at issue is the growing of a beard, which petitioner believes is a dictate of his religious faith, and the Department does not dispute the sincerity of petitioner’s belief.

In addition to showing that the relevant exercise of religion is grounded in a sincerely held religious belief, petitioner also bore the burden of proving that the Department’s grooming policy substantially burdened that exercise of religion. Petitioner easily satisfied that obligation. The Department’s grooming policy requires petitioner to shave his beard and thus to “engage in conduct that seriously violates [his] religious beliefs.” If petitioner contravenes that policy and grows his beard, he will face serious disciplinary action. Because the grooming policy puts petitioner to this choice, it substantially burdens his religious exercise. Indeed, the Department does not argue otherwise.

The District Court reached the opposite conclusion, but its reasoning misunderstood the analysis that RLUIPA demands. First, the District Court erred by concluding that the grooming policy did not substantially burden petitioner’s religious exercise because “he had been provided a prayer rug and a list of distributors of Islamic material, he was allowed to correspond with a religious advisor, and was allowed to maintain the required diet and observe religious holidays.” In taking this approach, the District Court improperly imported a strand of reasoning from cases involving prisoners’ First Amendment rights. Under those cases, the availability of alternative means of practicing religion is a relevant consideration, but RLUIPA provides greater protection. RLUIPA’s “substantial burden” inquiry asks whether the government has substantially burdened religious exercise (here, the growing of a 1∕2-inch beard), not whether the RLUIPA claimant is able to engage in other forms of religious exercise.

Second, the District Court committed a similar error in suggesting that the burden on petitioner’s religious exercise was slight because, according to petitioner’s testimony, his religion would “credit” him for attempting to follow his religious beliefs, even if that attempt proved to be unsuccessful. RLUIPA, however, applies to an exercise of religion regardless of whether it is “compelled.”

Finally, the District Court went astray when it relied on petitioner’s testimony that not all Muslims believe that men must grow beards. Petitioner’s belief is by no means idiosyncratic. But even if it were, the protection of RLUIPA, no less than the guarantee of the Free Exercise Clause, is “not limited to beliefs which are shared by all of the members of a religious sect.”


Since petitioner met his burden of showing that the Department’s grooming policy substantially burdened his exercise of religion, the burden shifted to the Department to show that its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a 1∕2-inch beard “(1) [was] in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) [was] the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

The Department argues that its grooming policy represents the least restrictive means of furthering a “ ‘broadly formulated interest,’ namely, the Department’s compelling interest in prison safety and security. But RLUIPA, like RFRA, contemplates a “ ‘more focused’ ” inquiry and “ ‘requires the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through application of the challenged law “to the person”––the particular claimant whose sincere exercise of religion is being substantially burdened.’ ” RLUIPA requires us to “ ‘scrutinize the asserted harm of granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants’ ” and “to look to the marginal interest in enforcing” the challenged government action in that particular context. In this case, that means the enforcement of the Department’s policy to prevent petitioner from growing a 1∕2-inch beard.

The Department contends that enforcing this prohibition is the least restrictive means of furthering prison safety and security in two specific ways.


The Department first claims that the no-beard policy prevents prisoners from hiding contraband. The Department worries that prisoners may use their beards to conceal all manner of prohibited items, including razors, needles, drugs, and cellular phone subscriber identity module (SIM) cards.

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 head.

The Magistrate Judge, the District Court, and the Court of Appeals all thought that they were bound to defer to the Department’s assertion that allowing petitioner to grow such a beard would undermine its interest in suppressing contraband. RLUIPA, however, does not permit such unquestioning deference. RLUIPA, like RFRA, “makes clear that it is the obligation of the courts to consider whether exceptions are required under the test set forth by Congress.” That test requires the Department not merely to explain why it denied the exemption but to prove that denying the exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental interest. Prison officials are experts in running prisons and evaluating the likely effects of altering prison rules, and courts should respect that expertise. But that respect does not justify the abdication of the responsibility, conferred by Congress, to apply RLUIPA’s rigorous standard. And without a degree of deference that is tantamount to unquestioning acceptance, it is hard to swallow the argument that denying petitioner a 1∕2-inch beard actually furthers the Department’s interest in rooting out contraband.

Even if the Department could make that showing, its contraband argument would still fail because the Department cannot show that forbidding very short beards is the least restrictive means of preventing the concealment of contraband. “The least-restrictive-means standard is exceptionally demanding,” and it requires the government to “sho[w] that it lacks other means of achieving its desired goal without imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion by the objecting part[y].”“[I]f a less restrictive means is available for the Government to achieve its goals, the Government must use it.”

The Department failed to establish that it could not satisfy its security concerns by simply searching petitioner’s beard. The Department already searches prisoners’ hair and clothing, and it presumably examines the 1∕4-inch beards of inmates with dermatological conditions. It has offered no sound reason why hair, clothing, and 1∕4-inch beards can be searched but 1∕2-inch beards cannot. The Department suggests that requiring guards to search a prisoner’s beard would pose a risk to the physical safety of a guard if a razor or needle was concealed in the beard. But that is no less true for searches of hair, clothing, and 1∕4-inch beards. And the Department has failed to prove that it could not adopt the less restrictive alternative of having the prisoner run a comb through his beard. For all these reasons, the Department’s interest in eliminating contraband cannot sustain its refusal to allow petitioner to grow a 1∕2-inch beard.


The Department contends that its grooming policy is necessary to further an additional compelling interest, i.e., preventing prisoners from disguising their identities. The Department tells us that the no-beard policy allows security officers to identify prisoners quickly and accurately. It claims that bearded inmates could shave their beards and change their appearance in order to enter restricted areas within the prison, to escape, and to evade apprehension after escaping.

We agree that prisons have a compelling interest in the quick and reliable identification of prisoners, and we acknowledge that any alteration in a prisoner’s appearance, such as by shaving a beard, might, in the absence of effective countermeasures, have at least some effect on the ability of guards or others to make a quick identification. But even if we assume for present purposes that the Department’s grooming policy sufficiently furthers its interest in the identification of prisoners, that policy still violates RLUIPA as applied in the circumstances present here. The Department contends that a prisoner who has a beard when he is photographed for identification purposes might confuse guards by shaving his beard. But as petitioner has argued, the Department could largely solve this problem by requiring that all inmates be photographed without beards when first admitted to the facility and, if necessary, periodically thereafter....


In addition to its failure to prove that petitioner’s proposed alternatives would not sufficiently serve its security interests, the Department has not provided an adequate response to two additional arguments that implicate the RLUIPA analysis.

First, the Department has not adequately demonstrated why its grooming policy is substantially underinclusive in at least two respects. Although the Department denied petitioner’s request to grow a 1∕2-inch beard, it permits prisoners with a dermatological condition to grow 1∕4-inch beards. The Department does this even though both beards pose similar risks.... Second, the Department failed to show, in the face of petitioner’s evidence, why the vast majority of States and the Federal Government permit inmates to grow 1∕2-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious reasons, but it cannot. "While not necessarily controlling, the policies followed at other well-run institutions would be relevant to a determination of the need for a particular type of restriction.” That so many other prisons allow inmates to grow beards while ensuring prison safety and security suggests that the Department could satisfy its security concerns through a means less restrictive than denying petitioner the exemption he seeks.

We do not suggest that RLUIPA requires a prison to grant a particular religious exemption as soon as a few other jurisdictions do so. But when so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the Department failed to make that showing here....


In sum, we hold that the Department’s grooming policy violates RLUIPA insofar as it prevents petitioner from growing a 1∕2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit is reversed, and the case is remanded for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

It is so ordered.