Professor Richard Garnett Responds to Holt v Hobbs Supreme Court Decision

Author: Denise Wager

Professor Richard Garnett responds to the Supreme Court's Holt v Hobbs unanimous opinion, upholding the religious-liberty claim of a Muslim prison inmate in Arkansas who challenged the prison's strict grooming policy under the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

According to Professor Richard Garnett, Professor of Law and Director of the Program on Church, State & Society at the University of Notre Dame, "Justice Samuel Alito's opinion for a unanimous Court is clear, correct, and welcome. This ruling confirms that when Congress passed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person's Act, they embraced a policy of protecting religious liberty for all, even prisoners serving life sentences." He noted that "the Court's opinion takes seriously the fact that Congress knew what it was doing when it enacted -- unanimously -- RLUIPA and also knew that, too often, excessive deference to vague and unspecified assertions by prison officials results in entirely unnecessary burdens on prisoners' fundamental human right to religious liberty."

Professor Garnett observed that, although last year's decision in the Hobby Lobby case sharply divided the justices, the Holt case -- like the Court's other recent religious-accommodation cases -- brought them together. "The justices were correct, in the Hobby Lobby case, to rule that the Religious Liberty Restoration Act required an exemption for Hobby Lobby from the preventive-services mandate and, for the same reasons, they are correct that Mr. Holt is entitled to a modest exemption from the prison system's no-beards rule. The burden on his religious exercise is clear, and it is just as clearly unnecessary and unjustified." Prof. Garnett acknowledged that "not all religious objections and believers can be accommodated, and religious-liberty claimants will and should sometimes lose. However, the federal policy is that when religion-based requests for exemptions are reasonable, they should be granted. In a religiously diverse society, with a government that is increasingly involved in more and more aspects of our lives, when we can accommodate religion, we should."

He further added that "today's decision exposes the weakness in the increasingly and troublingly common claim that religious-liberty arguments are merely 'conservative' or 'right-wing' ways of masking prejudices or opposition to antidiscrimination laws. Today's decision shows that religious freedom is a deeply rooted national commitment, not a partisan one. Even in a pluralistic society that is sharply divided on many questions, it should be and is possible to find ways to accommodate religious beliefs that the majority does not share."