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Case Style: Ricky Knight, et al v. Leslie Thompson, et al
Case Number: 12-11926
Judge: Hon. Charles R. Wilson
Court: IN THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE ELEVENTH CIRCUIT
Plaintiff's Attorney: LESLIE THOMPSON
Defendant's Attorney: WILLIAM S. STRICKER
Description: Plaintiffs, male inmates of the Alabama Department of Corrections
(“ADOC”), brought this suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized
Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”), 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc et seq., to challenge the
ADOC’s “short-hair policy.” The short-hair policy forbids Plaintiffs from wearing
their hair unshorn in accordance with the dictates of their Native American
religion. In our previous opinion, we affirmed the district court’s entry of
judgment in favor of the ADOC. See Knight v. Thompson, 723 F.3d 1275, 127677 (11th Cir. 2013) (“Knight I”).1 On January 26, 2015, the Supreme Court
vacated our previous opinion and remanded for further consideration in light of
Holt v. Hobbs, 574 U.S. ___, 135 S. Ct. 853 (2015).
*Honorable Harvey E. Schlesinger, United States District Judge for the Middle District of Florida, sitting by designation. 1The lengthy procedural history and factual background of Plaintiffs’ case are provided in our previous opinion.
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We asked the parties to file supplemental briefs addressing the issue on
remand. The parties have done so. Having considered both the briefs and Holt, we
conclude that Holt does not dictate a change in the outcome of this case. We
reinstate our prior Knight I opinion with revisions only to Part III.B.ii, which we
set forth below, and we add, with this opinion in Knight II, a discussion of the
Supreme Court’s decision in Holt and why it does not affect the outcome in our
In Holt, the Supreme Court considered a RLUIPA challenge to the Arkansas
Department of Correction’s (“the Department”) “no-beard policy.” The no-beard
policy prohibited inmates from wearing facial hair other than a neatly trimmed
mustache. Holt, 574 U.S. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 860. The policy made no exception
for inmates who objected on religious grounds but did allow inmates with
diagnosed dermatological problems to wear a ¼-inch beard. Id.
Plaintiff Gregory Holt, an Arkansas inmate and devout Muslim, sought
permission to grow a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious belief. Id. at
___, 135 S. Ct. at 859, 861. After the Department denied Holt’s requested
exemption, he filed suit under RLUIPA. Id. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 861. Following
an evidentiary hearing, the district court dismissed Holt’s RLUIPA complaint for
failure to state a claim on which relief can be granted, and the Eighth Circuit
affirmed. Id. On certiorari review, the Supreme Court reversed, holding that the
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Department’s grooming policy violated RLUIPA insofar as it prevented Holt from
growing a ½-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Id. at ___, 135 S.
Ct. at 867.
Plaintiffs here raise three arguments worth addressing for why Holt changes
the outcome in their case. First, Plaintiffs argue that, like the lower courts in Holt,
the district court in this case failed to engage in a “focused inquiry.” We disagree.
In Holt, in relevant part, the Department argued that its grooming policy
represented the least restrictive means of furthering a broadly formulated interest in
prison safety and security. Id. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 863. The Supreme Court
cautioned, however, that RLUIPA demands “a more focused inquiry and requires
the Government to demonstrate that the compelling interest test is satisfied through
application of the challenged law to . . . the particular claimant.” Id. (quotations
omitted). Thus, RLUIPA requires a court to “scrutinize the asserted harm of
granting specific exemptions to particular religious claimants and to look to the
marginal interest in enforcing the challenged government action in that particular
context.” Id. (quotations omitted and alteration adopted).
While Holt sought to grow a ½-inch beard, such that the Department had to
show how denying him a ½-inch beard actually furthered its compelling interests,
the Plaintiffs here request a complete exemption of long, unshorn hair from the
ADOC’s short-hair policy. See Knight I, 723 F.3d at 1276-77, 1277 n.1.
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Therefore, RLUIPA requires us to scrutinize the asserted harm of granting that
specific exemption of long, unshorn hair and to look to the marginal interest in
enforcing the short-hair policy in that particular context. That is exactly the
focused inquiry that this Court and the district court applied. See, e.g., id. at 1280
(“[The magistrate judge] found that inmates can use long hair to alter their
appearances, long hair impedes the ability of officers to quickly identify inmates in
the prisons, and inmates can use long hair to identify with special groups, including
gangs.”); id. at 1285 (“Plaintiffs have not presented any less restrictive alternative
that can adequately contain the risks associated with long hair . . . .”); id. at 1286
(“The ADOC has shown that Plaintiffs’ requested exemption poses actual security,
discipline, hygiene, and safety risks.”).
Second, the Plaintiffs claim that the district court applied “unquestioning
deference” to prison officials’ testimony. In Holt, the Supreme Court admonished
the lower courts for engaging in “unquestioning deference” to the Department’s
assertion that allowing Holt to grow a ½-inch beard would undermine its
compelling interest instead of requiring the Department “to prove that denying the
exemption is the least restrictive means of furthering a compelling governmental
interest.” Holt, 574 U.S. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 863-64 (emphasis added). Notably,
the prison officials in Holt provided largely conclusory and speculative testimony
in justification of their no-beard policy; for example, they could point to no
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instance in Arkansas or elsewhere where an inmate had hidden contraband in a ½
inch beard, and they could not explain why a dual-photo method could not be
employed to address the concern of an escaped inmate shaving his beard to
disguise his appearance. See id. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 861.
Here, in contrast, the district court made various factual findings concerning
inmates’ hair length based on the ADOC’s witnesses’ “elucidating expert opinions,
lay testimony, and anecdotal evidence based on their decades of combined
experience as corrections officers.” Knight I, 723 F.3d at 1278. As we explained
in our previous decision, “the detailed record developed during the trial of this case
amply supports the [d]istrict [c]ourt’s factual findings about the risks and costs
associated with permitting male inmates to wear long hair.” Id. at 1284. The
ADOC’s witnesses offered more than “speculation, exaggerated fears, or post-hoc
rationalizations,” id. (quotation omitted), and the type of “unquestioning
deference” that concerned the Holt Court simply did not occur in this case. In
other words, the ADOC did prove that denying Plaintiffs’ specific exemption is the
least restrictive means of furthering its compelling governmental interests.
Third, the Plaintiffs contend that, in light of Holt, the district court erred in
disregarding the evidence presented below that the prison systems of 39 other
states “would allow the religious accommodation Plaintiffs request.” Holt
presented evidence that “the vast majority of States and the Federal Government
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permit inmates to grow ½-inch beards, either for any reason or for religious
reasons.” Holt, 574 U.S. at ___, 135 S. Ct. at 866. The Supreme Court concluded
that the Department failed to show, in the face of this evidence, why it could not do
the same. Id. The Supreme Court explained that “when so many [other] prisons
offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons
why it believes that it must take a different course, and the Department failed to
make that showing here.” Id.
As an initial matter, on this record, it is not apparent that the Plaintiffs
presented evidence that all of these 39 other prison systems would allow their
specific requested accommodation—long, unshorn hair. Compare id. (“[T]he
Department failed to show . . . why the vast majority of States and the Federal
Government permit inmates to grow ½-inch beards . . . but it cannot.”). For
instance, while several of the written policies of other prison systems proffered by
Plaintiffs indicate that inmates generally have freedom in choosing their hair
length, the policies make clear that the chosen hair length cannot pose risks for
health, safety, hygiene, order, or security. Thus, it is not clear that these policies
would allow for entirely unshorn hair.
In any event, unlike in Holt, the district court here did not defer to the
ADOC’s “mere say-so” that it could not accommodate Plaintiffs’ requested
accommodation even though other prison systems offer such an accommodation.
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See id. As already discussed, the “detailed record developed” below distinguishes
this case from Holt, where the lower courts gave “unquestioning deference” to
prison officials’ conclusory and speculative assertions. As we stated in our
previous opinion, the ADOC has “shown that Plaintiffs’ requested exemption
poses actual security, discipline, hygiene, and safety risks” and neither we nor
Plaintiffs can “point to a less restrictive alternative that accomplishes the ADOC’s
compelling goals.” Knight I, 723 F.3d at 1285-86.
Therefore, we reinstate our Knight I opinion with revisions only in Part
III.B.ii on pages 1284 to 1286. We file that reinstated opinion with those
revisions, contemporaneously with this opinion.
Outcome: We affirm, once again, the district court’s judgment in favor of the ADOC
after our reconsideration in light of Holt, pursuant to the Supreme Court’s