Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Imam's Interpretation of Halal Held Relevant To Sincerity of Inmate's Beliefs

In Russell v. Pallito, (D VT, Nov. 25, 2019), a Vermont federal district court refused to exclude the testimony of Taysir Al-khatib, the main imam of the Islamic Society of Vermont, who was to be presented as an expert on Islamic dietary laws.  The issue arose in a suit by Justin Russell, a Muslim pre-trial detainee who claimed that Department of Corrections policies fail to provide him and similarly situated inmates a diet that meets their religious requirements. According to the court:
Russell contends that Al-khatib’s expert testimony regarding Islamic dietary law is irrelevant because the proper inquiry for purposes of his claim is whether his beliefs regarding Islamic dietary law are sincerely held, not whether they are correct as a matter of religious doctrine....
More specifically, according to Russell, “[t]he question of whether Muslims may properly subsist on a kosher diet is essentially a question of religious interpretation,” and “the validity of such interpretation is not a fact of any consequence in determining the action, and is therefore irrelevant.”
The court went on to hold:
The Court recognizes Russell’s concern regarding conflation of the sincerity and verity of his religious beliefs, and remains cognizant of its duty to refrain from adjudicating intra-faith disputes.....
But that fact alone does not render Al-khatib’s testimony about Islamic dietary requirements irrelevant as a matter of law.... Rather, evidence that some members of Russell’s religious community hold a contrary interpretation of Islamic dietary requirements may be valuable to a jury in assessing the sincerity or religious nature of Russell’s beliefs as well as whether Defendants’ actions substantially burdened those beliefs.