This Note attempts to resolve a significant impediment to the religious free exercise of prisoners. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) forbids the government from placing a “substantial burden” on a prisoner’s religious exercise. Congress did not define substantial burden in the statute, instead indicating that courts should rely on the Supreme Court’s free exercise jurisprudence for a definition.

Despite congressional advisement, differing methods of statutory interpretation led to a circuit split over the term’s definition. One “plain-meaning” group of circuits defined substantial burden textually, while a second “jurisprudential” group defined it as intended through existing free exercise precedent. In 2015, the Supreme Court exacerbated the split in Holt v. Hobbs. In dicta, the Court wrote that a substantial burden requires an inmate “to engage in conduct that seriously violates [their] religious beliefs.” The plain-meaning circuits adopted this language as a standalone definition, but the jurisprudential circuits held fast to their previous definition.

The difference between the two definitions is significant for religious inmates. Under the Holt definition, plain-meaning courts employ a “conduct-focused” analysis for their substantial burden inquiry: Inmates must show that they were forced to “engage in conduct” that seriously violates their beliefs. By contrast, jurisprudential courts maintain a “pressure-focused” analysis, which considers government pressure applied onto the inmate as the harm, rather than the inmate’s resulting conduct.

This Note argues that the conduct-focused approach is inappropriate in the penal context. It calls on the Supreme Court to resolve the circuit divide and to further reconcile inherent differences between RLUIPA’s penal and economic contexts. As a remedy, this Note suggests a penal-specific definition of substantial burden that applies a pressure-focused style of analysis, similar to the Supreme Court’s early Sherbert–Thomas framework.

The full text of this note may be found by clicking the PDF link to the left.


Anthony Wright is a devout Rastafarian serving a life sentence in North Carolina. 1 See Wright v. Lassiter, 921 F.3d 413, 415 (4th Cir. 2019). Among his many religious tenets, Wright believes that certain Rastafarian holidays must be celebrated with a communal feast. 2 Id. Wright is a member of the Ba Beta Kristiyan mansion of Rastafarianism—an esoteric offshoot of the faith founded by a prison chaplain for the New York Department of Corrections. Id. at 416. The sect is notable for its departure from the traditional Rastafarian practices of other mainstream mansions (for example, many Ba Beta Kristiyans eat meat and drink wine, while mainstream Rastafarians abstain from both). Id. at 417. Among their differences from the mainstream, Ba Beta Kristiyans also celebrate four holidays with communal feasts and services. Id. at 415. The North Carolina Department of Public Safety has no problem with Wright celebrating these holidays, but it does not want to foot the bill for any special meals, which, according to Wright, must include delicacies like goat, fish, plantains, and wine. 3 Id. By refusing to pay for the feasts, did the Department “burden” Wright and his religious free exercise? Did it “substantially burden” him? Did it pressure Wright to “modify his behavior,” or force him to “engage in conduct” that violates his beliefs? How far must the state go to accommodate his personal religious beliefs, and when does a subjective belief become just an idiosyncratic preference?

Wright filed a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 4 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000cc–cc-5 (2012). alleging that the prison’s refusal to pay for the feasts amounted to a substantial burden on his religious exercise. 5 See Wright, 921 F.3d at 415. I worked as an intern in the North Carolina Department of Justice from May to September 2018 while Wright’s case was on appeal, and I was involved in the preparation of the state’s brief. The Fourth Circuit ultimately did not reach the substantial burden question and instead ruled on causation grounds. Id. at 415, 419–21. As Wright was likely the only Ba Beta Kristiyan worshipper in the entire state, let alone the prison, he was unable to show that any other Rastafarian in the prison would be willing to share in his requested communal feasts. Id. at 420. RLUIPA implements a three-pronged analysis for religious exercise claims by plaintiff-inmates. In pertinent part, the Act states that a government action or rule of general applicability may not (1) “substantially burden” an inmate’s religious exercise unless the action (2) furthers a “compelling governmental interest” (3) in the “least restrictive means.” 6 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-1(a). RLUIPA includes definitions for many of its statutory terms, such as “religious exercise,” but it fails to define “substantial burden.” 7 Id. § 2000cc-5. Instead, the principal drafters intended for courts to define “substantial burden” based on the Supreme Court’s religious exercise jurisprudence. 8 See 146 Cong. Rec. 16,700 (2000) (joint statement of Sen. Hatch and Sen. Kennedy) (“The term ‘substantial burden’ as used in this Act is not intended to be given any broader interpretation than the Supreme Court’s articulation of the concept of substantial burden or religious exercise.”); see also Vision Church v. Village of Long Grove, 468 F.3d 975, 996–97 (7th Cir. 2006) (“RLUIPA’s legislative history indicates that the term ‘substantial burden’ was intended to be interpreted by reference to First Amendment jurisprudence . . . .”). Some lower courts have been more faithful than others when it has come to following that legislative intent, and contrasting methods of statutory interpretation have resulted in a circuit split over the definition of the term. 9 See infra section II.B.

In 2015, the Supreme Court missed an opportunity to clear up the substantial burden split in Holt v. Hobbs. 10 135 S. Ct. 853 (2015). Instead of providing a new definition, the Holt Court wrote in dicta that a substantial burden forms when the government forces an adherent to “engage in conduct that seriously violates [their] religious beliefs.” 11 Id. at 862 (internal quotation marks omitted) (quoting Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751, 2775 (2014)). This simple language was a significant departure from the Supreme Court’s previous substantial burden analysis, and it subsequently deepened the divide between the circuit courts. 12 See infra section II.C. Indeed, some courts adopted Holt’s “substantial burden” language as a standalone definition, 13 See, e.g., Schlemm v. Wall, 784 F.3d 362, 364 (7th Cir. 2015) (replacing the Seventh Circuit’s previous substantial burden definition with dicta from Holt). while others have ignored the dicta entirely. 14 See, e.g., Jehovah v. Clarke, 798 F.3d 169, 177 (4th Cir. 2015) (quoting Holt, 135 S. Ct. at 864, but omitting the “engage in conduct” dicta). Consequently, those circuits that conformed to Holt now employ a substantial burden definition focused on whether a government action has forced an inmate to “engage in conduct,” while the remaining circuits use a definition focused instead on the government’s “pressure” as the relevant statutory injury. 15 See infra section II.D.

The analytical difference between conduct-focused courts and pressure-focused courts is most significant in the penal context. Pressure-focused courts are analytically equipped to deal with claims in which the government pressures, but comes short of compelling, the plaintiff to violate their religious beliefs. 16 See infra section II.D. Conduct-focused courts, by contrast, can conceive of claims only to the extent that the government has already forced the plaintiff into action violative of their religious beliefs. 17 See infra section II.D. Since the government maintains near-absolute control over its prisoners, it is uniquely able to pressure a person into violating their beliefs without physically compelling them to do so. In other economic or land-use contexts, the government lacks comparable control. For example, even if the government blocks a group from constructing a church, that group will rarely, if ever, be forced to violate its beliefs—they can always just build the church somewhere else.

This Note attempts to show how a conduct-focused substantial burden definition, similar to the one used in Holt, is inappropriate in the penal context, where inmates are dependent on the government for certain religious accommodations. Part I tracks the development of the Supreme Court’s religious freedom jurisprudence, beginning with burden analysis under the Free Exercise Clause and culminating with the introduction of RLUIPA as the main forum for religious exercise claims in the penal context. Part II analyzes how Holt exacerbated a circuit split under RLUIPA by emphasizing a conduct-focused style of burden analysis. Part II further details how a conduct-focused inquiry spells trouble for institutionalized persons dependent on the government for religious accommodation. Finally, Part III offers a solution for how the Court can resolve this split with a new, penal-specific definition of substantial burden under RLUIPA. In particular, this Note advocates a pressure-focused substantial burden definition that can account for both overly prohibitive government restrictions as well as an inmate’s dependence on the government for religious accommodations.