Florida Can’t Deny Inmates Kosher Meals

     MIAMI (CN) – Florida prisons cannot deny kosher meals to inmates whose sincere religious beliefs require them, a federal judge ruled.
     U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz last week found that the United States was entitled to an injunction in the years-long dispute over Florida’s alleged failure to accommodate inmates’ religious diets at most of its prisons.
     The United States sued the Florida Department of Corrections in August 2012, claiming its refusal to provide kosher meals to all prisoners whose religious beliefs required them to eat kosher amounted to federal law violations.
     Between 2004 and 2007, Florida had offered kosher meals to prisoners in 13 facilities under the Jewish Dietary Accommodation Program. After that program ended, most prisoners had only three meal options: mainline, vegan and a no-meat alternative to the mainline program. Medical diets were also available when prescribed by FDOC medical staff.
     Except for a kosher pilot program the state ran in 2010, which benefitted a small number of inmates at the South Florida Reception Center, Florida offered no accommodations to prisoners whose religion required them to keep kosher, according to the government’s complaint.
     The state subsequently adopted the Religious Diet Program, which initially offered kosher meals to inmates at one facility in northern Florida. The United States challenged its restrictions and claimed the state burdened inmates’ religious exercise by its failure to expand the program to all prisons. When the RDP program began in 2013, Florida had more than 8,500 prisoners who self-identified with a religion that required a kosher diet in its more than 60 facilities, the government estimated.
     The state never agreed to an order holding that it was required by law to provide kosher meals to all such prisoners.
     After attempts to settle the case failed, Seitz entered a preliminary injunction, ordering Florida to expand its religious diet program and eliminate some of its restrictions. The challenged policies included a “10 percent rule,” which allowed for removal of inmates from the program if they missed 10 percent or more of their kosher meals within a month, and a “zero tolerance rule,” which said inmates could be cut off if they ate anything from the non-kosher programs. The state, however, gave inmates an opportunity to explain their actions to a chaplain before the suspension decision was made, based on an enforcement agreement it reached with the United States.
     After the 11th Circuit overturned Seitz’s decision, the United States sought a permanent injunction requiring Florida to serve kosher meals and blocking three of the challenged program restrictions.
     Florida countered that federal law did not require it to serve kosher meals to prisoners and said that the challenged policies were valid under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
     The state also said it had expanded the RDP program to include more than 9,500 prisoners at several facilities, and that it planned to apply it to all state prisons by the end of April.
     Seitz, however, agreed that two of the challenged restrictions and the state’s blanket refusal to accommodate diets based on religious beliefs violated RLUIPA.
     Florida could not show that it had a compelling interest in controlling the costs associated with the kosher program, which it was already providing to thousands of inmates across the state, according to the April 30 ruling.
     “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,” Seitz wrote.
     While Florida estimates the program could cost as much as $12.3 million a year, even in the worst case scenario, those costs represent a small fraction of the corrections department’s $2.3 billion annual budget, the judge noted.
     Moreover, the Florida prison system is no different from the federal prison system or prison systems in other states, which run similar programs, the 31-page order adds.
     And while state prison officials are in charge of prison policies and resource distribution, federal law may override inadequate policy decisions that are based on “mere speculation” or “exaggerated fears,” according to the ruling.
     The state may seek to modify the injunction in case the program is no longer sustainable, Seitz said.
     “While defendants have offered an explanation for their blanket denial of kosher meals, they have not offered evidence to support their policy,” the order states. “As noted above, despite the alleged budget crisis, defendants have begun providing kosher meals to prisoners, have not had to cut any programs, have given raises to their employees, and have filled more vacant positions.”
     The state could reduce participation rates and costs by screening out those inmates whose kosher diet is not based on religious beliefs, the judge said.
     Without an injunction, Florida may discontinue kosher meal programs at any time, for any reason, which it has done before, the court concluded.
     Seitz found that the zero-tolerance policy, which may remove a prisoner from the program based on a single alleged violation, is also contrary to federal law. While appeals from such decisions are pending, prisoners must either violate their religious beliefs by eating non-kosher or not eat at all, which burdens inmates’ religious exercise, according to the ruling.
     Additionally, the state cannot enforce the 10 percent rule, which creates a similar burden on religious exercise by suspending inmates based on an arbitrary number of skipped meals. Seitz said there are less restrictive means to avoid waste, such as tracking meal participation rates and planning accordingly.
     However, the court found that asking inmates to take a sincerity test as to their religious beliefs does not violate RLUIPA. There is no proof that asking inmates about their beliefs prevents their religious exercise or forces them to participate in activities prohibited by their religion, the ruling states.
     Moreover, the FDOC is not using the test as a condition for admission into the program. If that were to change, the United States may seek modification of the order, Seitz said.
     The parties submitted proposed final judgments regarding the injunction and oversight and reporting requirements on Wednesday.
     Representatives for Florida’s Attorney General did not respond to a request for comment.

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