ND Expert: Supreme Court decision on prison beard ban 'clear, correct and welcome'

Author: Michael O. Garvey

Richard W. Garnett Richard W. Garnett
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The United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled Tuesday (Jan. 20) that an Arkansas prison’s beard ban violated a prisoner’s religious liberty.

According to Richard W. Garnett, professor of law and director of the Notre Dame Law School’s Program on Church, State and Society, the Court’s decision in the Holt v. Hobbs case “shows that religious freedom is a deeply rooted national commitment, not a partisan one. Even in a pluralistic society that is sharply divided on many questions, it should be and is possible to find ways to accommodate religious beliefs that the majority does not share.”

Justice Samuel Alito’s written opinion on the ruling in favor of Gregory Holt, a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who challenged the prison’s strict grooming policy under the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), was “clear, correct, and welcome,” Garnett said.

According to Garnett, the opinion “takes seriously the fact that Congress knew what it was doing when it enacted — unanimously — RLUIPA and also knew that, too often, excessive deference to vague and unspecified assertions by prison officials results in entirely unnecessary burdens on prisoners’ fundamental human right to religious liberty.”

Garnett observed that, while last year’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case sharply divided the justices, the Holt case, like other recent religious-accommodation cases the Court has decided, brought them together.

“The justices were correct, in the Hobby Lobby case, to rule that the Religious Liberty Restoration Act required an exemption for Hobby Lobby from the preventive-services mandate and, for the same reasons, they are correct that Mr. Holt is entitled to a modest exemption from the prison system’s no-beards rule,” Garnett said. “The burden on his religious exercise is clear, and it is just as clearly unnecessary and unjustified. Not all religious objections and believers can be accommodated, and religious-liberty claimants will and should sometimes lose. However, the federal policy is that when religion-based requests for exemptions are reasonable, they should be granted. In a religiously diverse society, with a government that is increasingly involved in more and more aspects of our lives, when we can accommodate religion, we should.”

Contact: Richard W. Garnett, 574-631-6981 (office), 574-276-2252 (cell), rgarnett@nd.edu

Originally published by Michael O. Garvey at news.nd.edu on January 21, 2015.