Kosher Meals for Prisoners: U.S. Department of Justice Wins Claim of Religious Discrimination against the Florida Department of Corrections

A federal court has ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections’ (Department) refusal to provide kosher meals to inmates violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The court’s decision in U.S. v. Florida Department of Correction (S.D. FL 2015) is noteworthy for its application of two recent Supreme Court decisions – Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and Holt v. Hobbs (2014) – to find a violation of RLUIPA.

After the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the Department, the Department agreed to provide kosher meals under its Religious Diet Program (RDP), but would not agree to entry of an order that it was required by law to provide kosher meals. The DOJ alleged that the Department’s prior complete ban of kosher meals violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. It also claimed that certain penalty provisions of the RDP violated RLUIPA: (1) its policy that prisoners who miss 10% or more of one of the kosher meal options are no longer eligible to receive kosher meals, and (2) its policy that a prisoner discovered purchasing, processing, or consuming food from the canteen or another source that violates religious diet requirements can no longer obtain kosher food under the RDP. A prisoner can challenge either of these penalties under the prison’s grievance process, but the process can take up to 30 days during which time the prisoner must eat from the mainline.

Regarding the Department’s earlier prohibition on providing kosher meals, the Department argued that RLUIPA does not mandate that it provide such meals “because cost containment is a compelling governmental interest which excuses them from providing kosher meals.” The Department asserted that it had already spent $3.9 million to implement the RDP, but did not provide a breakdown of that number. It claimed that future costs to continue the RDP would be between $384,400 and $12.3 million per year. Costs include the cost of kosher food, additional equipment to monitor prisoners using the RDP program (laptops and scanners), and more staff.

The Court relied on Hobby Lobby to reject the Department’s argument and find that “RLUIPA may require the government to expend additional funds to accommodate citizens’ religious beliefs.” It noted that the $12.3 million per year to operate the RDP would account for only five one thousandths (0.005) of the Department’s $2.3 billion annual budget. It added: “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.” Further, the Department represented that it is “committed to providing kosher meals and that the current RDP is ‘sustainable,’ both monetarily and security-wise.” The Department failed to provide any evidence that the cost of the RDP has forced it to cut any other programs or staff, or that there has been any harm to the Department’s operations.

Next, the court looked to Holt v. Hobbs to consider whether the Department’s kosher meal prohibition was similar to other prison systems. It was persuaded by the DOJ’s contention that the Department, apart from its kosher meal prohibition, is not unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons and most major prison systems across the country that offer kosher meals to prisoners. Relying on Holt, the court noted that “when so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the Department failed to make that showing here.”

Finally, the RDP’s penalty provisions were also found to violate RLUIPA, because denying a prisoner eligibility for up to 30 days when challenging a penalty under the grievance process “forces a prisoner, during the grievance process, to choose between violating his religious beliefs or not eating.” This can be especially burdensome to those prisoners who are penalized in error. The Department’s alleged compelling interest in cost-containment was again rejected, since “there is no record evidence indicating how much money is saved by immediately suspending violators, at least some of whom will be reinstated into the RDP after going through the grievance process.” Nor did the Department show how other cost-saving measures are not less restrictive alternatives to the penalty provisions.

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