Sunday, May 03, 2015

Justice Department Wins Its Suit Against Florida To Require a Kosher Meal Program In Prisons

The U.S. Department of Justice has won it long-running lawsuit against the state of Florida over its prisons' kosher meal policy.  In United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, (SD FL, April 30, 2015), a Florida federal district court held that the blanket denial of kosher meals violates RLUIPA, and issued a permanent injunction requiring the state to provide kosher meals to those prisoners with a sincere religious belief requiring kosher meals.  The state initially suspended its kosher meal program for budgetary reasons, but reinstituted a program in 2013.  However the state rejects the claim that it is by law required to provide kosher meals. In granting the injunction, the court said in part:
Because neither side disputes that a blanket denial of kosher meals imposes a substantial burden on prisoners' religious exercise for those prisoners that have a sincere religious belief requiring them to eat kosher, the burden is on Defendants to demonstrate that denying such prisoners kosher meals (a) is in furtherance of a compelling state interest and (b) is the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. Throughout this litigation, Defendants have asserted that they have a compelling state interest in cost containment and that not providing a kosher diet is the least restrictive means of achieving cost containment.  Defendants have not met their burden....
As the United States contends, it is hard to understand how Defendants can have a compelling state interest in not spending money that they are already voluntarily spending on the exact thing they claim to have an interest in not providing.
The court also enjoined two other aspects of the religious diet program: the zero tolerance policy on infractions and the rule requiring removal from the program of an inmate who has missed 10% of his meals. However the court refused to enjoin the potential use as one part of its testing of an inmate's religious sincerity a question asking the inmate to identify the religious rules that require him to eat a religious diet. The Justice Department issued a press release announcing the decision. Orlando Sentinel yesterday reported on the decision.