RFI Files Amicus Brief with Notre Dame Law’s Religious Liberty Clinic to Protect the Rights of Prisoners

June 17, 2022

RFI recently filed an amicus brief with Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic to assert that all people — including those who are incarcerated — have a fundamental right to live in accordance with their religious beliefs. The brief was filed in support of a petition asking the Supreme Court to review and reverse the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in Smith v. Ward.

In Smith v. Ward, a Muslim man named Lester Smith who is incarcerated in Georgia has been fighting the state prison system for more than 10 years for permission to wear a full-length beard, as his faith requires. The trial court found that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act (RLUIPA), Georgia could not justify its strict ban on beards longer than half an inch in prison. However, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled against Smith and vacated a partial remedy the district court had awarded him, which would have allowed him to grow a beard up to three inches long.

Notre Dame’s Religious Liberty Clinic featured a story on the brief, highlighting:

The Religious Liberty Clinic filed the amicus brief on behalf of the Religious Freedom Institute, which is seeking to ensure that governments do not inhibit the free exercise of religion and that religious believers are entitled to the full measure of protections to religious practice under laws like the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The RLUIPA has protected the religious freedom of incarcerated individuals to observe religious dietary restrictions, participate in sacraments, and possess religious texts.

“The trial court found that Georgia provided no rationale that could justify its strict ban on beards longer than half an inch in prison,” said John Meiser, supervising attorney for Notre Dame Law School’s Religious Liberty Clinic. “The Eleventh Circuit’s decision allowing Georgia to continue to enforce that unjustifiable ban flouts even the most basic understanding of RLUIPA and cries out for correction by the Supreme Court.”

In its brief, the Religious Liberty Clinic explains how the Eleventh Circuit’s opinion defies the RLUIPA, which demands relief when the government fails to justify a substantial burden on religious exercise.

“The fundamental right to religious freedom is shared by everyone, including those, like Mr. Smith, who are in prison,” Meiser said. “It should not be hard for Georgia to respect that right and allow Smith the simple freedom to grow a beard — something 39 other prison systems allow without any issue. Georgia’s refusal to do so does not reflect serious penological concerns but an unwillingness to protect religious freedom in the way that federal law demands.”

Read the full story on the brief: ND Law’s Religious Liberty Clinic files amicus brief with Religious Freedom Institute to protect the rights of prisoners