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Southern District of Florida Approves Kosher Diet for Jewish Prisoners

Written by Admin on January 8, 2014 Category: RLUIPA
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The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (“RLUIPA”) is comprised of two distinct areas of law: one that focuses on land use disputes facing religious institutions, and the other that focuses on interferences with the religious rights of incarcerated individuals. While Dalton & Tomich attorneys primarily focus their practice on religious land use, the area construing the religious rights of prisoners is an equally important and rapidly developing aspect of RLUIPA that deserves attention.

One particularly interesting aspect of this area of law governs prisoners’ ability to request and receive a specialized diet based on their religious beliefs and needs. A case decided in December by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida is of particular interest. In U.S. v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, No. 12-22958 (S.D. Fla. Dec. 6, 2013), the Court granted a preliminary injunction in favor of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) requiring the Florida Department of Corrections (“DOC”) to offer kosher meals to all prisoners that have a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher within six months. Throughout the litigation, the Florida DOC adamantly maintained that federal religious liberty laws did not require it to offer kosher meals to Jewish prisoners.

In granting the DOJ’s preliminary injunction request, the Court held that the DOJ was likely to succeed on the merits of its RLUIPA claim.The Court specifically prohibited the DOC from enforcing four aspects of its Religious Diet Program:

1. A 90-day waiting period before the prisoner could receive kosher meals

2. A requirement that inmates undergo a “sincerity test” in which they had to answer questions about what religious laws require them to follow a kosher diet in order to qualify for kosher meals

3. The “10% Rule,” which prohibits a prisoner from continuing to receive kosher meals who misses 10% of the meals, even if the meals the prisoner did eat were exclusively kosher

4. The “Zero Tolerance Rule,” which prohibits a prisoner from continuing to receive kosher meals if he or she is found to have eaten anything that prisoner officials deem not kosher

While the DOC argued that offering kosher meals was too expensive, the Court calculated that the expense of operating the program amounted to a mere .0025% of the DOC’s yearly operating budget. In addition, the Court cited at least 35 state DOCs that offer kosher diets to their Jewish prisoners, as does the Federal Bureau of Prisons at its 115 facilities. The majority of these prison systems do not conduct a “sincerity test” on its prisoners as such a test would almost certainly run afoul of RLUIPA.

This decision, while not widely publicized in the media, is extremely important in the area of protecting the religious liberties of institutionalized persons. It will be interesting to see if the reasoning followed in this case will be followed by future courts addressing prisoners with other religiously-based dietary needs in the future, such as Muslims following a halal diet or Hindus refraining from eating beef. We are closely following this developing area of law and will be sure to share on our blog any important decisions as they are issued.

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Dalton & Tomich, PLC is the national leader in successfully helping churches, other religious institutions and their insurers defend their rights in land use and zoning matters under RLUIPA, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. We have helped clients win cases against municipalities and other local government bodies from coast to coast, with experience serving both as general counsel and special litigation counsel.