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Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Key Religious Freedom Protections

Supreme Court Ruling Upholds Key Religious Freedom Protections

Earlier today, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 in Holt v. Hobbs, holding that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), prisoner Abdul Maalik Muhammed could grow a half-inch beard while incarcerated in Arkansas. This decision upheld the fundamental religious freedom rights of all people, of all backgrounds, and is heartening in light of the current debate over religious exemptions. The Union for Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Women of Reform Judaism were pleased to join an amicus brief coordinated by American Jewish Committee on the side of Mr. Muhammed.

RLUIPA was passed in 2000 to ameliorate some of the issues that arose in the 1990s following the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993 and the Supreme Court’s ruling in Boerne v. Flores (1997). This law ensures a key balance between the right of all individuals to live according to the teachings of their faith while maintaining security, discipline and order in correctional facilities. The Supreme Court’s ruling today ensures that reasonable religious accommodations should be made so that Mr. Muhammed can practice his religious according to his own beliefs and interpretations.

Justice Samuel Alito wrote the opinion for the Court, finding that the Arkansas Department of Correction’s argument that their compelling interest in prohibiting contraband (the fear was that items could be hidden in a half-inch beard) and their least restrictive alternative of not allowing a beard of that length (even though it allows beards of a quarter-inch if there are medical reasons) did not outweigh the substantial burden that the rules places on the religious freedom of Mr. Muhammed. The Court found that even though there are many ways for the petitioner to practice his religion, it does not mean that the Department of Corrections can restrict one of them.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote a stunningly short – but powerful – concurring opinion:

“Unlike the exemption this Court approved in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 573 U. S. ___ (2014), accommodating petitioner’s religious belief in this case would not detrimentally affect others who do not share petitioner’s belief.”

The emphasis on religious freedom extending to where it infringes upon the rights of others demonstrates the balance the Court found in this case – that the religiously-compelled need of an institutionalized person to grow half-inch beard would not compromise the security of the prison and other prisoners – and that they lacked to strike in the Hobby Lobby case, when they found that “the contraception mandate constitutes a substantial burden on the free exercise rights of these closely-held corporations, [denying] the religious liberty of Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood's employees and [denying] the compelling interest of ensuring all women have access to reproductive health care.”

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision today ensures that all individuals may live according to the teachings of their faith – or non-faith. This ruling is an important reminder for all of us that the laws that protect religious freedom and church-state separation have allowed the Jewish people and other religious minorities to flourish in the United States, while elsewhere in the world they are face persecution and oppression.