Michigan Argues Jewish Inmates Must Buy Their Own Kosher Meals

The Michigan Department of Corrections says it is not required to provide kosher meat and dairy to Jewish inmates to supplement vegan meals, arguing they must buy those foods themselves from the prison commissary.

(AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews, File)

CINCINNATI (CN) — Jewish inmates who wish to observe the Sabbath and certain holidays by eating kosher meals must do so at their own expense, the state of Michigan argued on Thursday in an attempt to overturn a federal judge’s decision to the contrary.

Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, two Jewish inmates in the Michigan prison system, filed a class action shortly after the state implemented a new policy to provide a “universal, vegan meal” to any inmate approved for a religious meal.

The 2013 suit alleged the Michigan Department of Corrections, or MDOC, was required to provide kosher meat and diary, that the vegan meal was cross-contaminated, and that it fell short of being considered kosher under the belief system espoused by Ackerman, Shaykin and other Jewish inmates.

Following a bench trial, a federal judge ruled the vegan meal policy imposed a significant burden on Jewish inmates and therefore violated their rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or RLUIPA.

The MDOC appealed to the Sixth Circuit, disputing the sincerity of the lead plaintiffs’ religious beliefs in its brief to the Cincinnati-based appeals court.

“Ackerman and Shaykin claim that their Jewish religion requires them to eat kosher meat and dairy on every Sabbath and on four Jewish holidays. Yet they failed to purchase any of these items, despite them being readily available at the prison commissary, opting instead to buy coffee and popcorn,” the brief states.

The state cited evidence that both of the inmates had more than enough funds in their prison bank accounts to buy kosher foods for themselves, but simply chose not to.

Michigan also took issue with the district court’s findings under RLUIPA regarding the burden imposed on orthodox Jewish inmates like Ackerman and Shaykin.

“While inmates may have a right to nutritional meals, they do not have a right to be served specific meals at mealtime,” it said. “Here, the district court record reflects that inmates had access to kosher meat and dairy products through the commissary, which is all that the RLUIPA requires.”

In their brief to the Sixth Circuit, Ackerman and Shaykin argued their spending habits are not conclusive in establishing their religious beliefs, and said that “even if [they] were to spend every penny they earn on kosher meat and dairy, they would still not be able to fulfill the mandates of their religion.”

Attorney Scott Mertens from the Michigan Attorney General’s Office argued before a three-judge panel on behalf of the state Thursday, and began with a quote from the code of Jewish law.

Mertens told the panel adherents are required to prepare kosher meals on the Sabbath and holidays “to the fullest extent of their means,” and implied that because they are in prison, the plaintiffs in this case may not be able to practice their beliefs as fully as they would like.

The state’s attorney emphasized the MDOC is only asking Jewish inmates to buy kosher meat and dairy from the prison commissary to supplement the vegan meal that is provided free of charge.

U.S. Circuit Judge Chad Readler, a Donald Trump appointee, questioned the attorney about the MDOC’s policy that forbids inmates from eating the meat and dairy with their meals in the mess hall.

Mertens said the meat and dairy are “analogous to devotional accessories,” and pointed out they can be consumed immediately before or after a meal. He touted the state’s policy as “a progressive approach … that gives inmates the freedom to choose,” and said the single vegan meal “establishes a solid foundation” that allows the prison system to accommodate the 28 religions it currently recognizes among its inmate population.

Attorney Thomas Rheaume Jr. argued on behalf of the inmates, telling the judges the policy in place before the bench trial “completely foreclosed [his clients] from consuming a meal with kosher meat and dairy.”

U.S. Circuit Judge John Nalbandian, another Trump appointee, asked about Mertens’ contention that the meat and dairy are “devotional accessories,” and whether there are other instances of prisons buying religious items for inmates.

“We’re talking about food here,” Rheaume answered.

Readler questioned the attorney about how far a state must go to accommodate the religious beliefs of its inmates.

“How do we know how much is too much?” the judge asked.

“I don’t think there is a bright-line test,” the attorney replied. “Under RLUIPA, it’s a fact-specific analysis on a case-by-case basis.”

At the conclusion of his arguments, Rheaume rejected his colleague’s interpretation of Jewish law and said the quote “should be wholly ignored” by the court.

In his rebuttal, Mertens urged the panel to overturn the lower court’s order and told the judges “cost could be a substantial burden” to the state if it is required to provide kosher meat and dairy on every Sabbath.

Upon being asked by the judges, however, the state’s attorney informed the court the MDOC is currently providing kosher meat and dairy at meal times for Jewish inmates.

U.S. Circuit Judge Helene White, an appointee of George W. Bush, rounded out the panel. No timetable was set for the court’s decision.

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