On June 28, 2011, a devout Muslim prisoner at the Arkansas Department of Corrections' Cummins Unit filed a lawsuit in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Arkansas under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA") against the Director of the Arkansas Department of Corrections and the Warden of the Cummins Unit. The plaintiff, proceeding without counsel, asked the court for a temporary and permanent injunction against the enforcement of the prison's grooming policy, claiming that the prison was substantially interfering with his right to practice religion in violation of RLUIPA and the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Specifically, the plaintiff claimed that the prison's refusal to allow him to grow a 1/2 inch beard was not the least restrictive means of furthering the government's compelling interest in maintaining security in the prison.
On July 6, 2011, United States Magistrate Judge Joe J. Volpe, relying heavily on Fegans v. Norris, 537 F.3d 897 (8th Cir. 2008), recommended that the plaintiff's motion for preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order be denied. On October 18, 2011, the District Court (Chief Judge Brian S. Miller), however, rejected the magistrate's proposed findings, noting that the defendants failed to satisfy their burden of proving that the grooming policy was the least restrictive means to achieve prison security as applied to the plaintiff's case. The District Court then granted plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction and temporary restraining order, and remanded the case to the Magistrate Judge for further hearings on whether the grooming policy was the least restrictive means to maintain prison security.
After an evidentiary hearing, on January 27 2012, Magistrate Judge Volpe recommended that the Court's October 18, 2011 order be vacated, that the plaintiff's complaint be dismissed with prejudice for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Holt v. Hobbs, No. 11-cv-00164, 2012 WL 994481 (E.D. Ark. Jan. 27, 2012). Magistrate Judge Volpe noted that the state had brought forth credible evidence that a 1/2 inch beard presented security threats, notwithstanding the fact that under the policy a prisoner with a diagnosed skin condition was allowed to grow a 1/4 inch beard. For example, a 1/2 inch beard could conceal weapons and/or contraband; allowing a prisoner to keep a beard could allow him to disguise his identity (by shaving) in the event of an escape; and giving certain prisoners preferential treatment (allowing them to grow beards) could lead to other prisoners targeting them or seeing them as leaders. The plaintiff conceded that the government had a compelling interest in maintaining prison security, but argued that the policy was not the least restrictive means to do so. Specifically, the plaintiff referenced the procedures used by the New York Department of Corrections that maintain prison security by photographing inmates with and without a beard so that they may not disguise themselves in the event of an escape. Despite this evidence, Magistrate Judge Volpe declared that a high level of deference is owed to prison officials in judging the specific needs of their prison, and that policies of other prisons are not dispositive. Finally, the Magistrate Judge noted that because the plaintiff was already given several religious accommodations (a prayer rug, a list of distributors of Islamic material, correspondence with religious advisors, dietary accommodations, and unobstructed observance of religious holidays), the grooming policy did not "substantially burden" the plaintiff's religious exercise. The Magistrate Judge recommended that the complaint be dismissed with prejudice. Moreover, he recommended that dismissal of the complaint count as a "strike" for purposes of the Prison Litigation Reform Act, which penalizes prisoners if they file more than three lawsuits that are frivolous or fail to state a claim. On March 23, 2012, the District Court (Chief Judge Brian S. Miller) adopted the Magistrate's recommendations in full, and dismissed the plaintiff's complaint. Holt v. Hobbs, No. 11-cv-00164, 2012 WL 993403 (E.D. Ark. Mar. 23, 2012).
The plaintiff appealed to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals. On June 12, 2013, the Court (per curiam) held that the State met its burden under RLUIPA of establishing that the grooming policy was the least restrictive means of furthering the compelling government interest in prison security, and affirmed the District Court's dismissal of the case. The Court did, however, reverse the District Court's holding that the dismissal counted as a strike under the Prison Litigation Reform Act. Holt v. Hobbs, 509 Fed.Appx. 561 (8th Cir. 2013); No. 12-3185, 2013 WL 2500568 (8th Cir. June 12, 2013).
Still without counsel, the plaintiff then sought review in the Supreme Court of the United States; the Supreme Court granted certiorari, limited to the RLUIPA claims, and appointed counsel. Holt v. Hobbs, 134 S.Ct. 1512 (2014). On January 20, 2015, the Court reversed, unanimously. In an opinion by Justice Alito, the Court held that Arkansas's grooming policy violates RLUIPA "insofar as it prevents petitioner from
growing a 1⁄2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs." The opinion focused on the fact that the state's asserted security interest was undermined by the fact that it allowed prisoners to grow 1/4-inch beards for medical reasons, and also allowed prisoners to grow their hair longer than 1/2 inch. Joshua Arocho - 11/11/2014