Prisoners’ Right to Religious ExpressionMcRae v. Johnson

The Virginia Department of Corrections has a policy that requires inmates to be clean shaven and keep their hair short. Our clients, who are Muslims and Rastafarians, have religious objections to cutting their hair or shaving their beards. As a result, some of them have been put into segregation, lost work opportunities, and lost the ability to earn good time. We filed a complaint under the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prohibits the government from imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ free exercise of religion unless the restriction is narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. The case was stayed for months while the Fourth Circuit considered whether RLUIPA was constitutional (see Madison v. Riter). The parties then proceeded with discovery. VDOC filed a motion to dismiss based on additional constitutional grounds, which the court denied. The case was again put on hold while the U.S. Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of RLUIPA.

Following oral arguments, the court on May 31, 2006, denied the defendant's motion for summary judgment and partially granted ours.  The judge held that we proved that the VDOC grooming policy imposed a substantial burden on our clients' right to free exercise of their religions, and ordered an evidentiary hearing to determine whether the policy furthers a compelling government interest and whether it uses the least restrictive means to accomplish its objective.  On August 16, 2006, the district court ruled against us, finding that the grooming policy was the least restrictive means to further VDOC's interests in safety and security.  We appealed to the Fourth Circuit.  On January 7, 2008, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the lower court decision.

Court Documents:
Appellate Brief- U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit (pdf)
Response to Defendant's Motion for Summary Judgment- U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (pdf)
Motion for Summary Judgment- U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (pdf)
Complaint- U.S. District Court, Eastern District of Virginia (pdf)


Rebecca Glenberg, ACLU of Virginia

Pro Bono Law Firm(s)

Steven Rosenfield

Date filed

February 19, 2003


U.S. District Court, Richmond