This really shouldn't have taken this long to decide. Max Moussazadeh is serving a seventy-five year sentence for murder. He is also a practicing Jew and his family kept kosher throughout his life. In 2005, he filed an administrative grievance over the unavailability of kosher foods.
After properly exhausting administrative remedies, he filed suit in October 2005, alleging that the failure to provide kosher meals violated RLUIPA and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. The suit was stayed to facilitate settlement talks, and though his facility at the time began to serve kosher meals, the suit was not settled because the Texas Department of Correctional Justice refused to ensure that they would continue to do so permanently. Nonetheless, the suit was eventually dismissed by the court as moot.
While an appeal of that dismissal was pending, Moussazadeh got himself into more trouble and was transferred to a different, more secure facility. That institution did not provide free kosher meals, though paid meals were available at the commissary. Because of his transfer, the suit was no longer moot and was reinstated.
However, it was dismissed again, as the lower court felt that Moussazadeh had not yet re-exhausted his administrative remedies and because he was not “sincere in his beliefs.”
The Fifth Circuit reversed the lower court last week and ordered the case remanded for further proceedings.
The TDCJ’s argument, and the District Court’s opinion, essentially told Moussazadeh that the transfer hit the reset button on the administrative process. Though he had been fighting for his religious rights for seven years, the previous matter was handled by opening a kosher kitchen in his previous facility. The changed circumstances regarding his confinement necessitated a new administrative grievance.
The Fifth Circuit begged to differ. They likened it to a prisoner that was beaten irregularly. Multiple sporadic beatings over time do not necessitate multiple sporadic complaints. It necessitates a remedy to the beating. Moussazadeh was denied kosher food and is now being denied kosher food. The temporary remedy to his problem will not necessitate years of additional administrative battles and litigation.
This was perhaps the more humorous of the TDCJ’s arguments. Because Moussazadeh was occasionally sneaking non-Kosher snacks, such as sodas and candy, they argued that his religious beliefs were “not sincere.” In other words, because he was not a perfect Jew, they argued that he waived his right to kosher food.
Needless to say, the Fifth Circuit didn’t buy it. After all, we’re all human. No person is perfect in following their religion. RLUIPA protections do not extend only to the most pious amongst us.
So does this mean it’s over? Not exactly. There is still the issue of Texas’ compelling state interest in managing costs. Providing kosher meals is a significant expense. Whether the status quo is a narrowly tailored means to handle that interest, and whether other remedies might suffice, will be left to the lower court.
The kosher battle rages on.
- Max Moussazadeh v. Texas Department of Criminal Justice (Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals)
- Cutter v. Wilkinson (The Oyez Project)
- Religious Freedom Restoration Act (FindLaw’s LawBrain)