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Inmate Has Right To Wear Beard For Religious Purposes, Supreme Court Rules

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

January/February 2015
Volume 62

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Through vigorous enforcement of:

  • Federal statutes prohibiting religion-based discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations;
  • Federal laws against arson and vandalism of houses of worship and bias crimes against people because of their faith; and
  • The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA);

the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

Back issues of this newsletter may be found at You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


Citing the "very broad protection for religious liberty" in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Supreme Court on January 20 unanimously ruled in Holt v. Hobbs that an Arkansas prison had violated RLUIPA when it denied a Muslim prisoner the right to wear a 1/4-inch beard for religious reasons. The United States filed an amicus brief and participated in oral argument in support of the prisoner.

Under RLUIPA, a prison policy or practice that imposes a "substantial" burden on the religious exercise of an inmate must be justified by a compelling governmental justification pursued through the least restrictive means.

In the Holt case, the prison did not dispute that the prisoner had a sincere religious belief that he must wear a beard, or that the ban on wearing a 1/4-inch beard burdened his religious exercise. However, the prison claimed that security concerns, both relating to the hiding of contraband and issues of identification, justified the beard ban. The Supreme Court acknowledged, as the United States had argued in its brief, that prisons have a compelling interest in safety and security and are entitled to a degree of deference to their expertise in such matters. However, the Court held, applying the beard ban without a religious exception for the petitioner's 1/4-inch beard was not the "least restrictive means" of achieving such compelling interest.

On the question of protecting against contraband in the prison, the Court noted that the deference due is not "tantamount to unquestioning acceptance." Thus the Court refused to accept that the beard ban was necessary to prevent smuggling of contraband, in light of the fact that hiding places such as hair longer than 1/4 inch, moustaches, and clothing were already available. Moreover, the court noted, means were available to search beards, such as requiring a prisoner to run a comb through his beard.

Regarding the concern that an inmate could change his appearance by shaving a 1/4-inch beard to assist in escape or other evasion from identification, the Court held that identification issues also arise with shaving of moustaches, head hair, or the 1/4-inch beards that are currently permitted for medical reasons. Also, the Court observed that a prison could take two photographs of a prisoner, both with and without a beard, to assist in identification. The Court noted that the "expansive protection for religious liberty" in RLUIPA "may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise."

RLUIPA authorizes the Attorney General to bring enforcement actions. That authority has been delegated to the Civil Rights Division, and cases involving the rights of institutionalized persons under RLUIPA are handled by the Division's Special Litigation Section. More information, including questions and answers about RLUIPA, is available on the Special Litigation Section's RLUIPA page.

Consent Order Resolves Minnesota Prayer-Center Lawsuit

A federal court in Minneapolis entered a consent order on January 5 resolving allegations by the United States that the City of St. Anthony Village, Minnesota violated an Islamic association's rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) when it denied it a permit to open a prayer center. The order resolves a lawsuit the United States filed in August 2014 after the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center was denied a conditional use permit to use the basement of an office building in a light industrial zone as a prayer center.

The Abu-Huraira Islamic Center sought a suitable location in the northern Twin Cities area for Friday prayer services to address the lack of adequate space for its members. After a three-year search, Abu-Huraira entered into a purchase agreement for the St. Anthony Business Center. It chose the property because it is centrally located, has a basement measuring approximately 11,600 square feet, and has ample parking for its congregation. The business center is in St. Anthony's "light industrial" district, which permitted conditional uses for "assemblies, meeting lodges, and convention halls" at that time, including a union hall with banquet facilities rented to the general public.

Shortly after the Islamic Center entered a contract to purchase the building and applied for a conditional use permit in February 2012, the City imposed a moratorium on issuing permits for places of assembly in the zone. The City denied Abu-Huraira the permit, and ultimately changed the zoning code to exclude places of assembly altogether from the light industrial zone.

On August 27, 2014, the United States filed a lawsuit to enforce Abu-Huraira's RLUIPA rights. The suit alleged that the permit denial imposed a "substantial burden" on its religious exercise, and that the city violated RLUIPA Section 2(b)(1), which requires religious assemblies to be treated at least as well as nonreligious assemblies. Under the terms of the consent order, the City agreed to create a Planned Use Development at the St. Anthony Business Center that will permit religious worship on the site along with commercial uses. The City subsequently approved the PUD on February 10. The consent order also requires a training program for certain city officials and employees about the requirements of RLUIPA, requires the city to provide information about RLUIPA to the public through its website, and requires periodic reporting to the Justice Department about the handling of religious land use applications.

"The Department of Justice will remain vigilant to ensure that the freedom to worship is a reality for all," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, when the parties announced the terms of the proposed consent decree in December. "We are pleased that the city worked with us to ensure that the rights of this congregation and others will be protected."

U.S. Attorney Andrew Luger stated: "After lengthy negotiations involving attorneys from my office and the Department of Justice, St. Anthony Village, and Abu-Huraira, we have reached a resolution that respects the Constitution and provides the worship space that Abu-Huraira sought. Today we all join together to announce with great pride that the Abu-Huraira Islamic Center hasa new home in St. Anthony Village."

RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, contains multiple provisions prohibiting religious discrimination and protecting against unjustified burdens on religion exercise. More information about RLUIPA, including a report on the first ten years of its enforcement, may be found at the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section RLUIPA page.

Georgia School District Agrees to Settlement to Address Harassment Based on Religion and National Origin

On November 18, the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement with the DeKalb County, Georgia, school district to resolve an inquiry into the district's handling of peer-on-peer harassment based on national origin and religion.

After DeKalb County and the Department of Justice reached a settlement agreement resolving allegations regarding harassment of a Sikh middle school student in May 2013, the Department and DeKalb County agreed to continue working collaboratively to resolve remaining concerns regarding the content and implementation of the school district's anti-harassment policies and the training of employees and students on such policies.

The new, comprehensive agreement ensures that the more than 100,000 students in the DeKalb County school district will be protected by clear and comprehensive anti-harassment policies. It also ensures that parents and students will have access to essential information, including discipline policies and procedures, in their preferred language.

The agreement requires, among other things, that the DeKalb County school district develop and implement annual age and position appropriate trainings on religious and national origin harassment for students and staff. The training will include topics related to post-9/11 backlash and harassment that perpetuates negative stereotypes impacting the Sikh, Muslim, Arab-American and South Asian communities.

"We commend the DeKalb County School District's commitment to ensuring that all students - including Sikhs, Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians - can grow and learn in a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination based on religion or national origin," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division, the day the settlement was announced. "DeKalb County school district has worked hand-in-hand with the department to identify and expand those policies that are successful at protecting kids while modifying those practices that need improvement, and we are confident that the district will continue its work to eliminate harassment in its schools."

Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public education on the basis of race, color, national origin, sex and religion. It is enforced by the Civil Rights Division's Employment Opportunities Section, which has more information about Title IV on its website.

RFRA Does Not Shield City Officials From Answering Questions About Religious Discrimination, Court Rules

On October 28, a federal court in Arizona ruled that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) did not shield two municipal officials from answering questions relating to their use of their authority to discriminate against persons not members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS). The decisions came in a suit filed by the United States in June 2012 alleging that the governments of Colorado City, Arizona and Hildale, Utah, whose residents are predominantly members of the FLDS church, have engaged in longstanding and pervasive discrimination against residents who are not FLDS members. The court in its ruling agreed with the United States that a city police officer and a former city official could be compelled to answer questions relating to their alleged discrimination against non-FLDS citizens in the provision of police services and in denying them housing based on their religion, despite the witnesses' claims that RFRA provided them a defense from providing any testimony relating to the FLDS religion.

The suit, previously discussed in volumes 54 and 55, alleges that the municipalities' police force has violated 42 U.S.C. § 14141 by failing to provide police protection for non-FLDS members, selectively enforcing laws against them, enforcing religious edicts of the FLDS church, and engaging in other actions in violation of rights guaranteed by the First Amendment, the Fourth Amendment, and the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The suit also alleges violation of the Fair Housing Act by the municipalities and their utility companies through actions designed to deny equal housing opportunities to non-FLDS members.

In the course of discovery in the suit, the United States sought testimony from police officer Curtis Cooke and former city official Vergel Steed. With regard to Officer Cooke, the United States sought to ask questions such as whether he had communicated with church leader Warren Jeffs while Jeffs was a fugitive, whether he ever saw city employees acting as church security staff, whether he took direction from the FLDS, and whether his police phone was direct connected to church security. Similarly, the United States sought to ask questions of Steed such as whether the FLDS Church had approved him to be on town council, whether he had discussions with church leaders about his official duties as a town council member, and whether he had ever served as church leader. The officer and the former council member claimed that their religious rights under RFRA would be infringed by being required to testify.

The United States in its brief did not address the sincerity of the religious beliefs of the two men or the degree to which requiring to testify would burden their religions. Rather, the United States argued that regardless of any burden, in a case like this involving allegations of religious discrimination, government entanglement with a church, and misuse of governmental power to enforce the edicts and will of the church, the United States as a litigant has a compelling interest in obtaining testimony about the nature and scope of the interactions of the church and the governments and their joint actions toward nonmembers.

The federal court agreed, since the United States has a compelling interest in eradicating discrimination and protecting civil rights: "Plaintiff alleges that the defendants have engaged in a pattern or practice of illegal discrimination against non-FLDS members, and that defendants have acted in concert with the FLDS leadership to deny non-FLDS individuals housing and police protection. In this action, plaintiff seeks to enforce the civil rights of non-FLDS members and has a compelling interest in doing so. Eradication of discrimination, the enforcement of civil rights laws, are compelling government interests."

The court further held that ordering the testimony was necessary to further the United States' compelling interest in enforcing the civil rights laws. Regarding Officer Cooke, the court held that "[t]he conduct of the defendant cities' marshals and their interaction with the FLDS church, its officials, and its associated entities and with non-FLDS residents of the cities are critical to understanding how the FLDS church and defendants interact." And, the court held, it is no answer that similar evidence might be found elsewhere. "To be sure, plaintiff has examined other deponents on the subjects which plaintiff seeks to explore with Officer Cooke; but these deponents are not fungible. What Cooke as a police officer knows about the interactions between the FLDS Church and the defendants is unique." Similarly, with regard to former city official Steed, the court ruled that the interactions of officials such as Steed and the FLSDS was likewise "critical to understanding how the FLDS church and defendants interact" and that Steed's testimony, like Officer Cooke's, was unique.

The case is being jointly litigated by the Civil Rights Division's Housing and Civil Enforcement Section and its Special Litigation Section.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015