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Posted March 5, 2014

Laycock to Argue Prisoner Religious Liberty Case Before U.S. Supreme Court

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Doug Laycock

Holt v. Hobbs will mark Laycock’s third U.S Supreme Court appearance since joining the Law School.

The U.S. Supreme Court agreed Monday to determine if a correctional facility’s refusal to let a prisoner wear a beard, per his religious convictions, violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in a case to be argued by University of Virginia School of Law professor Douglas Laycock, a religious liberty expert.

Holt v. Hobbs was brought by Arkansas Department of Corrections prisoner Gregory Holt, aka Abdul Maalik Muhammad, against corrections director Ray Hobbs and related parties under the act. Holt, who is serving a life sentence for burglary and domestic battery, claims prison policy infringes upon his ability to practice his Muslim faith. He seeks a compromise in the security-related policy that would allow him to wear a half-inch beard, Laycock said.

“Forty-three 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 United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit, a ruling which Holt noted in his filing as inconsistent with other circuit rulings and state corrections system policies. Laycock has been the subsequent counsel of record on the supplemental and reply briefs.

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.

The court’s granting of certioriari in 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 of religious institutions have limited rights to sue for employment discrimination.

“People here think I do this all the time,” said Laycock. “It had been 15 years since the last [Supreme Court appearance] before I came to UVA. Maybe the UVA credential is what I needed."