Holt v. Hobbs and the Third-Party-Harms Establishment Clause Theory

Readers may recall that during the course of the Hobby Lobby litigation, some contraceptives mandate supporters argued that religious accommodations that impose “significant” harms or burdens on third parties constitute violations of the Establishment Clause. In this post, I argued that this view of the reach of the Establishment Clause was not convincing. It was based on a misreading (and substantial extension) of the relevant case law but also on a controversial conceptual view of the permissible scope of religious accommodation that, I claimed, should be rejected.

Virtually all accommodations impose harms or burdens of some kinds on others, though both the nature and the degree of the harms will vary. Some harms are financial, others are symbolic, and still others are to value systems more generally. Some harms are acute and others are mild. Yet it would reflect an impoverished conception indeed of what is valuable in life to claim that only financial costs are real or cognizable harms: it simply isn’t true that the only way in which a person can be harmed or burdened is through the pocketbook. Some financial burdens may be much less harmful than some symbolic harms, and vice versa, depending on factors too numerous to list. Whether money is involved or not, choices to accommodate or not to accommodate are often choices between ways of life that specify totally different virtues, or if they specify the same virtues, weigh them completely differently. In Goldman v. Weinberger, for example, a choice to accommodate Goldman would have been a choice against the set of values that the military was bringing to bear, and there were many of them. Ultimately I disagree with the outcome in Goldman. But the reason is not that the military would not have been harmed at all by accommodating him. In fact, it’s only by ignoring, flattening out, or misdescribing the military’s interests and concerns that we can say that the only issue in the case was accommodating Goldman, and the military was simply being obtuse. Perhaps there are rare situations in which the costs on third parties are so small as to be invisible (O Centro?). But in the main, it is in the nature of these kinds of conflicts that when one side loses, so does its way of life to some greater or lesser degree. The Hobby Lobby majority discussed the third-party-harm theory briefly at footnote 37, where it made the point that if all that was required to invalidate a religious accommodation was that a law conferred a benefit on a third party, and consequently that the deprivation of that benefit would be a burden, then the effect might (depending on what exactly “significant” means) be to destroy RFRA and render many religious accommodations unconstitutional.

Now that Holt v. Hobbs is in the offing (argument is scheduled for today, I believe), I am curious why nobody is making the third-party harm claim. Perhaps it is because the degree of deference ostensibly due to prison authorities in the Arkansas system is so great. Still, I would have thought that for somebody who subscribed to the third-party-harm theory of the Establishment Clause, Holt v. Hobbs would present a far clearer case than Hobby Lobby in which there might be serious, or significant, or at the very least cognizable, or tangible, harms to third parties–and a class of readily or easily identifiable third parties at that. I am writing this in haste (for a much more thorough treatment, see this excellent student note by Taylor Stout, The Cost of Religious Accommodation in Prisons), but I can think of three:

1. Increased risk of prison escape, harm to other inmates, and harm to those who must be in physical contact with the prisoner. This is a particularly vicious prisoner, who has shown himself capable of very violent behavior using a knife. He slashed at a woman’s throat with a knife. And while in prison, he held a knife to another prisoner’s throat as a result of a religious dispute. Though Arkansas prisons do not themselves have experience with prisoners hiding weapons and other contraband in their facial hair (naturally, since they don’t allow beards) other state prison systems do (see page 25 and following of this brief). Again, I recognize that it is perhaps the total deference to prison administrators which makes this particular prison policy specially objectionable. But I would have thought that these sorts of harms—harms to the personal security and safety of other people in physical proximity to the prisoner—are not obviously less “significant” than the harms to third parties in Hobby Lobby.

2. Administrative and financial harm to the prison system. The administration of religious accommodations in a prison system is burdensome. It requires more decision-making, more exercise of discretion, more manpower in the monitoring of the exceptions, and therefore more cost. One can dismiss these costs as de minimis, or unimportant, but that seems to me a cavalier view that can be bought rather cheaply at a great distance (which is where most of us are privileged to live) from the actual operations of prisons.

3. Symbolic harm, including harm to the idea of equality in the treatment of prisoners. A prison’s legitimacy depends in part on treating its prisoners equally and fairly, without privilege or favor. Dissimilarity of treatment can breed resentment on the part of the “disadvantaged” prisoners and on the part of the prison population more broadly. Moreover, prisons have important interests in uniformity of treatment that go not to equality concerns, but instead to interests in order and discipline. Prisons are dangerous places. They are populated with people who have been convicted of crimes. Sometimes, as in the case of this particular prisoner, those crimes are extremely violent. Prisons therefore need systems to regularize and impose discipline on such people. It is at least a symbolic harm—but quite possibly much more than that—to burden the efforts of prisons to cultivate uniformity in the service of prison discipline.

To be clear, I believe that the prisoner should win in this particular case. But the reason is certainly not that the prison is simply being obtuse inasmuch as accommodations of this kind are harmless or nothing at all to it. Yet the absence of the third-party-harms theory of the Establishment Clause in general public debate has puzzled me. Setting aside the issue of the remoteness of the potential harms, the nature of the potential harms relating to accommodation under RLUIPA in a case like this goes to deeply important interests in personal and institutional safety—interests that do not seem categorically less important than those of the third parties at stake in Hobby Lobby.

One response

  1. It is important to note that the prisoner’s beard is desirable but not obligatory. Based upon the evidence, why risk harming the other prisoners, when growing the beard is not necessary and this prisoner’s Religious Liberty is not being challenged?

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