LESTER J. SMITH, Plaintiff-Appellant,
BRIAN OWENS, COMMISSIONER, GEORGIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS, in his official and individual capacities, Defendant-Appellee.
from the United States District Court for the Middle District
of Georgia D.C. Docket No. 5:12-cv-00026-WLS-CHW
WILSON and JILL PRYOR, Circuit Judges, and BUCKLEW, [*] District Judge.
BUCKLEW, DISTRICT JUDGE
Smith, a Georgia state prisoner, alleges the grooming policy
enforced in Georgia state prisons violates the Religious Land
Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
("RLUIPA") by substantially
burdening his exercise of a sincerely held religious belief
that Islam requires him to grow an uncut beard. The district
court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant,
Brian Owens, Commissioner of Georgia's Department of
Corrections ("GDOC"). Smith appeals, contending
that Holt v. Hobbs,  a Supreme Court opinion issued after the
district court's order, renders the district court's
analysis inadequate. After review, and with the benefit of
oral argument, we vacate and remand.
filed a pro se action against Owens, arguing that he
had been denied his constitutional right to practice Islam by
operation of a GDOC grooming policy that forced him to shave
his beard. He stated his belief that "cutting of the
beard is against a command from God in al-islam, " Doc.
1 at 4, No. 5:12-cv-00026-WLS-CHW, and he sought nominal
damages and injunctive relief for violations of RLUIPA, 42
U.S.C. § 1983, the First Amendment, and the Georgia
filed a motion to dismiss, which the district court (by
adoption of the magistrate judge's Report and
Recommendation) granted as to every claim except Smith's
RLUIPA claim for injunctive relief against Owens in his
official capacity. While the motion to dismiss was pending,
Smith filed a motion for summary judgment, which the district
then filed his own motion for summary judgment. He argued
Smith could not establish a prima facie case under RLUIPA.
Owens explained that though the GDOC's grooming policy
generally prohibited growing beards, Smith qualified for a
medical-condition exception that allowed him to grow a beard
of ⅛ inch; consequently, Smith s religious exercise was
not substantially burdened. Owens argued in the alternative
that, even if the grooming policy substantially burdened
Smith's religious exercise, it furthered compelling
governmental interests in security, discipline, hygiene, and
safety by the least restrictive means.
in opposition, Smith noted the inconsistency between allowing
a medical exception to the grooming policy but refusing
religious accommodation. He argued such an inconsistency
demonstrated the GDOC was not employing the least restrictive
means of furthering its interests. In support, he identified
an alternative, less restrictive option:
An alternative for both parties would be to revise the
G.D.O.C. grooming policy to allow not only muslims, but all
inmates to grow a beard no longer than ¼ . . . inch,
with respect to all other religions who are required to wear
a beard. This would be an absolute less restrictive means
that addresses and resolves the State's underlying
interests, security, safety, and health concerns.
Doc. 117-1 at 3. He reiterated this alternative in what he
styled as a "settlement offer." Doc. 122 at 2.
magistrate judge recommended granting Owens' motion for
summary judgment. In his Report and Recommendation, the
magistrate judge reasoned that Smith failed to present
specific evidence of a substantial burden because Smith was
able to grow a ⅛-inch beard in accordance with the
grooming policy's medical exception. Doc. 124 at 6. The
magistrate judge also concluded Owens demonstrated that the
grooming policy furthered several compelling governmental
interests-security, discipline, hygiene, sanitation, and
safety-by the least restrictive means. Doc. 124 at 7-9. The
district court adopted the Report and Recommendation and
entered judgment in favor of Owens. Doc. 125.
appealed pro se. While Smith's appeal was
pending, the Supreme Court held in Holt v. Hobbs
that the Arkansas Department of Corrections' grooming
policy violated RLUIPA insofar as it prevented the plaintiff
from growing a ½-inch beard in accordance with his
religious beliefs. 574 U.S. ___, ___, 135 S.Ct. 853, 867, 190
L.Ed.2d 747 (2015). The GDOC then revised its grooming policy
to allow all inmates to grow a beard of up to ½ inch.
grew a ½-inch beard after the policy revision, and
Owens moved to dismiss Smith's appeal as moot, arguing
Smith had received the relief he sought. We denied Owens'
motion to dismiss, appointed Smith counsel, and ordered new
STANDARD OF REVIEW
is a question of law that we consider de novo.
Troiano v. Supervisor of Elections, 382 F.3d 1276,