U.Va. Law Professor Returns to Supreme Court to Argue for Inmate’s Religious Beliefs

September 30, 2014

Another Supreme Court term, another key religious liberty case argued by University of Virginia School of Law professor Douglas Laycock.

After arguing for citizens who objected to a town council’s prayer practices last year and a religious employer in 2011, Laycock is arguing the case of a Muslim inmate who wants to wear a beard according to his religious convictions. Holt v. Hobbs will be argued on Oct. 7.

The justices will decide if an Arkansas correctional facility’s refusal to let Gregory Holt wear a beard violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Holt brought the petition against corrections director Ray Hobbs and related parties under the act.

Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery. He claims a prison policy related to security concerns infringes upon his ability to practice his Muslim faith and wants to be able to wear a half-inch beard, Laycock said.

“Forty-two states, the District of Columbia and the federal Bureau of Prisons would allow him to wear a half-inch beard,” Laycock said. “All but Idaho and Mississippi would allow it to be longer than a half inch. There is no security problem in Arkansas different from what all these other systems face.”

Holt filed a handwritten petition in September following his June loss before the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a ruling Holt said in his filing was inconsistent with other circuit rulings and state corrections system policies. Laycock has since been Holt’s counsel of record.

Laycock said the Supreme Court decision could help lower courts rule more consistently on the religious rights of prisoners and provide better guidance to prison policymakers. “The Eighth Circuit is so deferential to the prison officials that the federal statute protecting the religious liberty of prisoners is effectively nullified as soon as someone says ‘prison security,’” he said.

Prison officials have testified that beards could conceal “anything from razor blades to drugs to homemade darts.” Hobbs said in testimony that a prisoner concealed part of a razor blade in his beard and later committed suicide with it. The same statement was repeated in the state’s Supreme Court brief, but it turned out to be false. The man had killed himself with a disposable razor that had been issued to him by the prison so he could shave. Since then, lawyers from the Arkansas state attorney general’s office wrote a letter to the court disavowing the erroneous testimony.

Laycock and his team obtained the police reports, an affidavit from the coroner and a photograph of the razor.

In the wake of the Supreme Court’s June decision in the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc. case and its extension of new rights to corporations, the case will test a different kind of challenge to religious liberty, Laycock said.

“This is a much easier case than Hobby Lobby because the government interest is just so weak,” he said. “I doubt you could hide anything in a half-inch beard, but if there is something that small, there are plenty of better places to hide it.”

Holt v. Hobbs will mark the third case for Laycock before the court since he joined the law faculty in 2010. Last year, he argued Town of Greece v. Galloway, which sought to better define the legal limits of public prayer in government meetings. In 2012, Laycock argued and won by unanimous decision Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which determined that employees who perform religious functions for religious institutions generally cannot sue for employment discrimination.

“People here think I do this all the time,” Laycock said. “It had been 15 years since my last oral argument before I came to U.Va. Maybe the U.Va. credential is what I needed.”

Professor Micah Schwartzman and a group of U.Va. law students will travel to Washington to watch the oral argument. Second-year law student Sarah Rafie, Laycock’s research assistant, will also attend and see some of her work come to fruition.

“Getting to be a part of Professor Laycock’s team has been an incredible learning experience,” said Rafie, who helped research state prison policies for the merits brief and gathered sources on Islam. “The opportunity to see him at work in an area of law that has largely been shaped by his work has been priceless.”

(Read Laycock’s supplemental and reply briefs and on the merits brief for the petitioner and the reply brief.)

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