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Summary Judgment Reversed in Another Kosher Prison Meal Case

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By William Peacock, Esq. on May 16, 2013 1:04 PM

Florida has dabbled in kosher cuisine. From 2004 to 2007, seven prisons administered kosher meals to inmates under the Jewish Dietary Accommodation Program (JDAP). For unknown reasons (likely budgetary), the program was discontinued. In 2010, they tried a pilot program, though it only existed at one prison in South Florida.

Bruce Rich is an Orthodox Jew serving time at the Union Correctional Institution in Florida. He filed a claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), arguing that his right to practice his religion was violated because he was denied a strictly kosher diet, and seeking both injunctive relief and monetary damages. Somehow, his case was tossed via summary judgment.

The Moot Boot?

Since Rich filed his initial suit, the situation has shifted a bit. In 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the Florida Dep’t of Corrections targeting their non-Kosher practices. Florida also announced plans to develop a kosher meal program, which began at Rich’s prison (though it includes a truly odd “religious sincerity” test, which requires the inmate to eat an alternate entree or vegan meal for up to ninety days before being granted the right to kosher cuisine.)

Kosher cuisine has arrived. Sounds moot, right?

Not exactly. For one, there’s the whole “fool me once, fool me twice” argument (also known as voluntary cessation). Florida had kosher meals once. Then they didn’t. They have provided no assurances that the current program will endure permanently. In fact, it was launched immediately before oral arguments, a coincidence in timing not lost on the Eleventh Circuit judges.

Florida implemented the plan … only at [Mr. Rich’s] prison, less than two weeks before the oral argument scheduled in this Court. These facts make it appear that the change in policy is ‘an attempt to manipulate jurisdiction.’

The defendant bears a heavy burden of demonstrating that the voluntary cessation obviates the need for judicial relief. Florida has not met that burden.

Un-compelling Interests Un-furthered

RLUIPA prohibits practices that substantially burden religious exercise, except where the policy (1) furthers a compelling governmental interest and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest. There is no dispute here that Rich’s religious exercise is burdened. Florida, meanwhile, fails miserably at proving anything.

They argued the dual interests of safety and cost. For safety, they argued that other inmates might react violently if they believe that the quality of their food suffered because money was redirected to kosher cuisine. That cost, they also argue, is significant, as up to 6,283 inmates might keep kosher.

And yet, no one receiving a vegan or medically-necessary diet has been beaten over Tofurkey and sugar-free Jell-O. The 2010 pilot program didn’t end in riots or budget crises. They also forgot to deduct the saved costs from producing 6,283 less non-kosher meals. As for narrowly tailored means, a plurality of states, as well as the Federal Prisons, have instituted religious diet accommodations without disastrous consequences — Florida probably can too.

Summary judgment reversed.

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