Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.
Mark and I have recorded a podcast on this week’s Supreme Court decision in Holt v. Hobbs, the prison beard case. We discuss the facts, the holding, and broader implications for RFRA and religious liberty.
Not too much to add to Rick Garnett’s analysis of Holt v. Hobbs. A short and precise opinion from Justice Alito. Here are just a few other questions and comments about the opinion and concurrences:
1. Rick quotes Justice Ginsburg’s one-paragraph concurrence, which states that she only joins the Court’s opinion “on th[e] understanding” that the accommodation here “would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.” I guess she felt she had to use the occasion to say something pejorative about Hobby Lobby, which she also quotes. It seems she has bought the line pressed by those who claim that the Establishment Clause prohibits third-party burdens, yet she articulates the standard that they champion rather expansively. There may be a big difference between arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that impose “significant burdens on identifiable third parties” (if memory serves, this was the standard favored by academic defenders of this argument) and arguing that the Establishment Clause prohibits religious accommodations that “detrimentally affect” anybody who doesn’t share the claimant’s religious beliefs. I don’t believe the former is a correct reading of the Establishment Clause. But the latter formulation seems a good deal broader. What constitutes a “detrimental effect” under that approach? Might symbolic harms count? I don’t see why they wouldn’t. And as Justice Alito points out, Arkansas made no argument that an exemption was not feasible as a matter of cost or other resources (“the Department has not argued that denying a petitioner an exemption is necessary to further a compelling interest in cost control or program administration”). Had the Department made an argument about cost control (with evidence, which was seemingly in short supply on its side), would any evidence of increased cost (no matter how small) not only been enough to find against the claimant as a RLUIPA matter, but actually have triggered an Establishment Clause violation had the prison accommodated the inmate? Suppose I am a prison inmate who thinks 1/2 inch beards are beautiful as a fashion statement, or because I come from a long line of bearded ancestors and it is important to me to observe the tradition (not so far from the truth in my case, other than the bit about being a prison inmate). Am I not “detrimentally affected” by the inequality of treatment that results from Holt’s accommodation, but not mine? Surely I am. It seems to me that this sort of standard, as well as its more careful academic progenitor, strikes at the heart of these religious accommodation statutes.
2. Following from that point, the heart of these statutes (as Rick also notes) is to provide “very broad protection for religious liberty” or “expansive protection for religious liberty,” as the Court says right at the start of the opinion. This case was an easy one according to that standard, even with a thumb on the scale of deference toward prison administrators, which the Court reaffirms (it rejects “unquestioning deference” but it acknowledges the “respect” that is due the prison administrators’ “expertise”). Should not Hobby Lobby, in which there was no such presumptive deference or “respect” accorded to the government, also have been an easy case according to that standard? Should it at least have been as easy, in light of the absence of deference toward the government in the latter? And yet Holt was unanimous while Hobby Lobby split 5-4.
3. The breadth of protection for religious freedom contemplated by the statutes (RFRA and RLUIPA) and affirmed by the Court was notable, but so was the rigor with which the least restrictive means portion of the analysis was applied. In Holt, the prison argued that its concerns about the shaving of facial hair and escape were unique because of the particular sort of prison it operated, and that its rule was therefore the least restrictive means of securing against the possibility of escape. But the Court rejected that argument for the simple reason that the prison had not done enough to distinguish itself from other prisons that allow facial hair and that had managed these concerns. Other prisons, that is, whose situation was analogous to the Arkansas prison (even if not identical) used less restrictive means to achieve their security interests. The Court looked to the variety of less restrictive means on offer out there in the national universe, and found that the Department should have used one or more of those. This is perhaps a useful elaboration of the least restrictive means test. Unless the government can prove that its burden is truly unique, the Court will look to analogous (even if not identical) solutions to similar problems reached by other governmental entities. If those other solutions seem to have worked without an imposition on religious freedom, then the government has not used the least restrictive means.
The Supreme Court today handed down Holt v. Hobbs, the RLUIPA case involving an Arkansas prisoner who complained of a state prison policy disallowing him to grow a beard in accordance with his understanding of his religious obligations.
The opinion was unanimous, with two separate, short concurrences by Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor. I’ll save analysis for a later moment (it was a rather straightforward application of RLUIPA in Justice Alito’s majority opinion, though with some interesting language about the individual components of the test).
For now, though, I’ll just note the fact of another unanimous opinion in this area from the Roberts Court. Holt v. Hobbs continues to follow the Roberts Court pattern of either unanimity or 5-4 outcomes in law and religion jurisprudence, as I discuss in greater detail at Part II of this article. The figures are now four unanimous law and religion decisions as against six 5-4 law and religion decisions. The article speculates about a few reasons that we might be seeing this particular voting pattern, contrasting it with the patterns of Supreme Courts past.
Mark and I will have a podcast on the decision in a few days.
In my last post on the subject, I wondered why there had not been more discussion on the part of advocates of the Significant Harm to Third-Parties Establishment Clause theory (abbreviated for convenience hereafter as SHTEC) regarding the application of that theory to the prison-beard case, Holt v. Hobbs. As Rick Garnett notes, the application of SHTEC theory to both Hobby Lobby and Holt v. Hobbs was recently addressed by Nelson Tebbe, Micah Schwartzman, and Richard Schragger. I will rapidly pass over the characterizations of the existing doctrine, as Rick discusses some of this and I’ve talked about it before, except to observe that whatever virtues SHTEC theory may have, its status as an “established principle of constitutional law” seems an improbable one. As I have explained before, SHTEC theory represents a major extension of current law. I also read the Hobby Lobby vote breakdown differently. If Justice Kennedy really accepted SHTEC theory, and believed that third-party rights in Hobby Lobby would have been violated by an accommodation for Hobby Lobby, then it is confusing to me that he would have joined the Court’s footnote 37. But he did join it (and of course he also said some very nice things about Justice Ginsburg).
On the application of SHTEC theory to Holt v. Hobbs, and to RLUIPA prison cases generally, I have some additional questions. My principal difficulties are terminological. I am having a hard time understanding what constitutes “significant” or “substantial” harm to “third party interests” and how that standard works in tandem with the RLUIPA standard.
First, the standard of significance seems elusive to me. With a slight tweak of the facts, maybe this becomes clearer. Suppose that the prison had a “No hair on the face or head longer than 1/4 inch” policy. And suppose it had evidence that exactly one person (or two, or five) had hidden a shank or a SIM card in their hair. What is the relationship for SHTEC purposes between frequency of harm and gravity of harm? Are one or two such instances enough to be “significant” because the gravity of the threatened harm is so great? Whatever one may think of the harm to third parties in Hobby Lobby, that harm is less grave than the third party harm I am positing (assuming one can agree that harm to life is graver than harm to access to employer-paid contraception), but of course the number of incidents of harm is greater in Hobby Lobby than in my modified Holt v. Hobbs hypo. SHTEC theory advocates can respond that Holt v. Hobbs didn’t deal with any of that. And so what is really going on is a failure of evidence. That’s fine, but that side-steps the issue. I’m less interested in the particular state of the evidence here than in understanding how SHTEC theory would apply in even a slightly more difficult prison case (surely these would fruitfully multiply after a favorable ruling for the prisoner in Holt v. Hobbs).
Second, I have difficulty with the distinction between third-party harms and government/state harms. Is there such a sharp difference? Or is it in the end all harm of various kinds to the state (that is to say, harms of multiple and varying kinds to the rest of us who are not being accommodated)? It may be some evidence in favor of the latter that there have been no separate SHTEC claims brought in the context of RFRA or RLUIPA actions. Everything has been analyzed pursuant to the statutory standard. Again, that’s because third party harm might be a kind of compelling interest that ultimately constitutes a state interest under RFRA or RLUIPA. Whether it rises to that level will depend on just how severely it burdens third parties (as Caldor put it, those accommodations which “take no account” of third parties are going to be in hot water). But notice what happens if one layers a SHTEC claim on top of the RFRA/RLUIPA compelling interest standard. Now it seems that third party harm claimants are on an equal footing with religious claimants. Religious claimants must allege a substantial burden; third party claimants can then allege a contravening “significant” burden; with the result that the government need not accommodate the religious claimant, and can circumvent its obligations to come forward with a compelling interest, by pointing to the SHTEC theory violation that would result from religious accommodation.
Third, in addition to administrative harms (which were not argued by the state in Holt v. Hobbs), there may be, as I’ve said before, symbolic harms of various kinds at issue (the state didn’t argue these either…but the state did a fabulously poor job of defending this case). Symbolic harms might affect the prison, the inmates, and the rest of us who support, in various ways, the system of criminal justice. As I indicated in my previous post, these are just as much harms to identifiable interests as are financial harms. They might include harms with respect to the equal treatment of prisoners and harms to the state’s interest (that is to say, to our interests, as well as the prisoners’ interests) in imposing discipline and uniformity on prisoners who very much need it. These are true harms. They are part of the purposes and functions of prisons in general. They even implicate certain important functions of punishment, including retributivism and rehabilitation, functions of punishment that Congress itself has recognized as important in the Sentencing Reform Act, among other places. Surely many state legislatures have done something similar in their own penological systems. To my mind, they may indeed be very significant. The egalitarian harms could be resolved in part by leveling up for non-believers, but that leveling up is extremely likely to produce other harms (resentments among those who cannot come up with a reason of “conscience” as well as rising administrative costs as more and more prisoners seek exemptions of various kinds).
Fourth, a final point of puzzlement: why is there no discussion in SHTEC theory of different standards of deference in a case like Holt as opposed to a case like Hobby Lobby. Under existing law, there is no deference at all in the latter (the standard is one of strict scrutiny), while there is great deference to the state in the former. Indeed, one of the primary points of uncertainty in the oral argument in Holt was how to reconcile strict scrutiny with this substantial deference to prison administrators (cf. Grutter v. Bollinger). But I have not seen this difference in the amount of deference accorded to the state discussed by SHTEC theorists (I may well have missed it). Does SHTEC theory incorporate a deferential posture with respect to prisons (and the military, and perhaps certain other institutions)? It certainly could, and it seems to me that such deference would take the form of giving a great deal more latitude to the state (or to third parties) on the issue of what is “substantial” or “significant” harm. Perhaps Arkansas still loses in Holt v. Hobbs. But it shouldn’t take much more at all for it to win.
Mark and I have recorded another in our podcast series, this time on the “prison beard case,” Holt v. Hobbs, argued this week at the Supreme Court. We discuss the claim and the oral argument, and make some predictions. To get our other podcasts, click here.
In the latest issue of the Cato Supreme Court Review, there is a useful essay by Miguel Estrada and Ashley Boizelle discussing the upcoming Supreme Court term and some of the major cases that the Court will hear. As readers of the Forum are aware, one of these cases is Holt v. Hobbs, concerning a claim by an Arkansas prison inmate–who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery stemming from an incident in which he attempted to slash his girlfriend’s throat–that prison rules forbidding him to grow a 1/2 inch beard in accordance with his religious views violate the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. One interesting feature of the case is that the Solicitor General has filed an amicus brief on behalf of the prisoner. The authors comment:
Solicitor General Donald Verrilli filed an amicus brief in support of Holt’s challenge, calling the no-beard policy “religious discrimination” and “a substantial burden on religious exercise.” Interestingly, this brief was filed only a few months after the government’s reply brief in Hobby Lobby, which insisted that the requirement that employers provide their employees with no-cost contraceptives did not constitute a substantial burden on the religious beliefs of those employers. In the government’s view, prisons can advance their legitimate safety objectives in some other way that is more respectful of the inmate’s religious beliefs; the federal government, on the other hand, need not be troubled to accommodate the sincere religious beliefs of business owners.
The federal government’s differential treatment of these two cases is odd because RLUIPA was intended to make available to prisoners protections that replicate those available to the general citizenry under RFRA. Whatever the relationship between the two statutes, it would be bizarre if those whose liberty is restricted on account of proven antisocial behavior were better protected from the government’s incursions on their religion than members of the law-abiding public. Be that as it may, given the Supreme Court’s disposition in Hobby Lobby, we should not be surprised to see a ruling invalidating the no-beard policy as an unjustified burden on Holt’s religion.
In July, ABA Book Publishing released Litigating Religious Land Use Cases, by Daniel Dalton (Dalton & Tomich, PLC). The publisher’s description follows:
This book discusses how to litigate such a religious land use case on behalf of a religious entity pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (“RLUIPA”) and the First Amendment. While the First Amendment dates to the founding days of the United States, RLUIPA is a much more recent federal law that can serve as an effective tool in protecting the property interests of religious organizations.
Litigating Religious Land Use Cases is intended to provide practical advice from the author’s personal litigation experiences. Generally, a religious entity will use all available means of resolving a dispute prior to entering into litigation. In the instance that a case results in litigation, this book discusses how to litigate such a religious land use case on behalf of a religious entity pursuant to the RLUIPA and the First Amendment.
Chapter topics include:
This book should serve as a useful guide for religious entities and the lawyers who represent them in navigating the challenges and uncertainties that inevitably surround a religious land use claim.
It is of course always difficult to predict how the Court will rule on any issue, and this is certainly true in the Hobby Lobby case. From my read of the transcript of the oral argument, the least restrictive means analysis stole the show. There sure was a lot of discussion about the accommodation to religious nonprofits as a less restrictive means than what the administrative agency had decided on for for-profits. Justice Kennedy asked repeatedly about the issue of regulatory, as opposed to legislative, exemptions as a Free Exercise Clause and RFRA problem. See, e.g. 56 (“Now what–what kind of constitutional structure do we have if the Congress can give an agency the power to grant or not grant a religious exemption based on what the agency determined?”).
On another matter, though, there was greater clarity in the argument. The government rejected the specific claim that an exemption in this case would violate the Establishment Clause. Here is the colloquy:
Justice Alito: Well is it your argument that providing the accommodation that’s requested here would violate the Establishment Clause
General Verrilli: It’s not our argument that it would violate the Establishment Clause. But it is our argument that you–in any RFRA case, including this one, you have to consider the impact on third parties, because otherwise, you will be skating on thin constitutional ice.
43. I am not quite sure what this means. But what it seems to mean is that, first, the government takes the position that this exemption, if granted, would not violate the Establishment Clause. And second, it seems to mean that RFRA itself, properly interpreted and applied, incorporates within itself Establishment Clause limits that relate to third party interests. That’s the claim I have made here. It is also the claim that this amicus brief makes. It also reflects the language in Cutter v. Wilkinson. It is a claim about the interpretation of a statute. It is not a claim that the statute violates the Establishment Clause if it violates a particular externally imposed threshold that is not spelled out in the statute itself. Solicitor General Verrilli went on to say that whatever third party interests are contemplated by RFRA are subsumed within the compelling government interest analysis right within RFRA: “[C]ertainly compelling interest analysis certainly does require consideration of the interests of third parties.” 44
Of course, that the government disavows a claim does not mean that the Court can’t go retrieve it on its own. But it was really only Justice Ginsburg who said anything at all about the Establishment Clause, and what she said seems also to be consistent with the point that RFRA (like RLUIPA) incorporates certain Establishment Clause limits. Justice Kennedy asked Attorney Clement how he “would suggest that we think about the position and the rights of the–of the employees[.]” Justice Kennedy then remarked that “the employees are in a position where the government, through its healthcare plans is…allowing the employer to put the employee in a disadvantageous position. The employee may not agree with these religious–religious beliefs of the employer. Does the religious beliefs just trump?” 33
After a response from Mr. Clement, here’s what Justice Ginsburg said:
But, Mr. Clement, you made the analogy to RLUIPA. And the one thing that has not been mentioned up till now is the Establishment Clause. The Court was very clear when it came to RLUIPA, which you said is similar to RFRA, that the accommodation must be measured so it doesn’t override other significant interests. And that was true of Sherbert and that was true of Yoder. The–and the Cutter case, and this Court made it very clear, that the accommodation has to be balanced and you have to take into account other significant interests.
34. Later in the discussion, Justice Kagan referred specifically to the “tangible harm” that women will suffer who don’t get the benefit of the statute. But neither Justice Kagan nor Justice Kennedy specifically talked about the Establishment Clause. And the discussion of tangible harms on third parties then turned toward the issue of alternative means of accommodating those interests without burdening the religious objector.
The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear Holt v. Hobbs, the case of a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas who claims that prison officials violated his religious freedom under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act when they enforced their grooming policy against him. The policy forbids the growing of a beard. Here’s the opinion of the 8th Circuit.
The case is important because it zeroes in on the government’s burden under RLUIPA, and whether it needs to consider alternatives to its policy as well as policies that other prison systems have tried in order to satisfy the least restrictive means leg of RLUIPA. In 2005, the Supreme Court held unanimously in Cutter v. Wilkinson that RLUIPA does not violate the Establishment Clause.
Kristen A. Carpenter (U. of Colorado Law School) has posted Limiting Principles and Empowering Practices in American Indian Religious Freedoms. The abstract follows.
Employment Division v. Smith was a watershed moment in First Amendment law, with the Supreme Court holding that neutral statutes of general applicability could not burden the free exercise of religion. Congress’s subsequent attempts, including the passage of Religious Freedom Restoration Act and Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, to revive legal protections for religious practice through the legislative and administrative process have received tremendous attention from legal scholars. Lost in this conversation, however, have been the American Indians at the center of the Smith case. Indeed, for them, the decision criminalizing the possession of their peyote sacrament was only the last in a series of Supreme Court cases denying American Indian Free Exercise Clause claims. Moreover, the Supreme Court’s Indian cases share a common and previously overlooked feature: in all of them, the Court assessed the Indian claims as too broad or too idiosyncratic to merit Free Exercise Clause protection and instead denied them through a succession of bright line formulations.
Identifying the unrequited search for a “limiting principle” as a basis for analysis, this Article reassesses the religion cases and underlying theoretical questions of institutionalism and equality, in their Indian context. It then identifies two contemporary policy shifts—namely Congress’s decision to entrust accommodation of Indian religious freedoms to federal agencies and its decision to do so at the tribal, versus individual, level—that have, in some respects, facilitated an “empowering practices” approach to American Indian religious liberties in the post-Smith era. Taking a descriptive and contextual approach, the Article illuminates opportunities for additional law reform in the American Indian context and also larger questions of institutionalism, equality, and pluralism in religious freedoms law.