Supreme Court to Hear Holt v. Hobbs Religious Freedom Case

MPAC Submits Amicus Brief in Support of Holt's Petition

October 7, 2014

Dear Friends,

Today is a big day. The Supreme Court is hearing a case looking at the limits of religious freedom in the prison setting. The case, Holt v. Hobbs, involves an Arkansas prisoner petitioning to grow a half-inch beard, which the Arkansas Department of Correction (ADC) believes is hazardous to prison security.

Given the discriminatory connotations in the case, MPAC and the Sikh Coalition submitted an amicus brief in support of Mr. Gregory Holt’s, also known as Abdul Maalik Muhammad, petition. The brief, which was prepared by Sidley Austin LLP argues that allowing Mr. Muhammad to grow a beard is important to preserving his right to the free exercise of religion and would not pose a significant threat to prison security.

We believe that Mr. Muhammad’s request is not only central to his sincerely held religious beliefs, but also instrumental to religious exercise. Other penal institutions have successfully accommodated religious grooming practices similar to those within Mr. Muhammad’s request without undermining security interests. There is no reason that Arkansas cannot do the same.

The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the ADC’s policy to prohibit beards was an authorized exercise of the prison’s security interest. This decision is concerning given that deference to security interests exposes Sikhs and Muslims to discrimination while contributing to an ongoing misunderstanding of their religious practices.

The arguments in the Supreme Court today will likely be guided by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Prisons Act. The Act, which aims to prevent laws substantially burdening a person’s freedom of religious exercise, is aligned with our stance on the case. If other institutions have successfully accommodated Muslim or Sikh men who grew beards, then ADC’s preferences are unjustifiable and go so far as to infringe upon rights to religious practice.

While the Quran does not require the beard, MPAC believes that those who believe it is an obligation should receive an accommodation. Furthermore, prison officials should be provided with training on religious practices in order to protect prisoners from undue bias and misunderstanding.


Saif Inam, Policy Analyst

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