Florida Must Provide Inmates Kosher Meals

     (CN) — Florida prisons cannot deny kosher meals to inmates whose sincere religious beliefs require them, the 11th Circuit ruled.
     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.
     A federal judge ruled against the state last year, finding that Florida could not show that it had a compelling interest in controlling the costs associated with the kosher program.
     The federal government estimates an annual cost of offering kosher food to inmates of $384,400, but Florida claims the cost will run as high as $12.3 million.
     The 11th Circuit affirmed the decision Thursday.
     “The Secretary fails to explain how she has a compelling governmental interest in not providing kosher meals to inmates now even though she voluntarily provided them in 2013,” Judge William Pryor said, writing for the three-judge panel.
     The state also failed to show why federal prisons and other state provide kosher meals to inmates, but Florida cannot, or how it can provide vegan meals at a marginal cost but not kosher meals. “The United States produced evidence that the Department is not screening out insincere applicants or enforcing the rules of participation in the program, and the Secretary does not contest that evidence,” Pryor said. “She instead responds that enforcing the rules would be too time-intensive. But she fails to cite any evidence or explain why it would be too time-intensive.”

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