Bruce Rich didn’t fare so well in the Florida justice system in 1999, when a Miami-Dade County jury found him guilty of murdering his parents and a judge sentenced him to life in prison.
But he scored a victory last week when an Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruling put him one step closer to receiving kosher meals at Union Correctional Institution in North Florida — and hundreds of other Jewish inmates to do likewise throughout the Florida Department of Corrections system.
Rich filed suit against the department in 2010 alleging that the denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. The U.S. Department of Justice also filed suit against the Corrections Department in Miami federal court last year alleging the same violation.
The denials force him, as an Orthodox Jew, “to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition,’’ said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
The fund filed an appeal for Rich after a federal district court last year dismissed the suit, which now returns to district court.
Ann Howard, Department of Corrections spokeswoman, said the department wouldn’t comment on pending litigation, though she did say the state provides a vegetarian/vegan diet for inmates who request it.
Goodrich called the decision “a great victory for human rights and religious liberty. Even prisoners retain basic human rights, and the state cannot sacrifice those rights on the altar of bureaucratic convenience.”
She said Rich — sometimes know by the elongated family name Richenthal — who shot parents Blanche and Irwin, “has been a leader on this issue in the Florida prison system.’’
Rich and his allies — 18 organizations that filed five “friend of the court’’ briefs, including the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, the Miami Beach-based Aleph Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Hindu American Foundation — want Florida to join the 35 states that provide kosher food to inmates as a matter of policy.
That it doesn’t is “in my opinion embarrassing, since Florida has the second or third largest Jewish population in the country and is supposedly respectful of religious things,’’ said Rabbi Menachem M. Katz, who heads a prison mission for the Aleph Institute, a Chabad Lubavich social services group based at The Shul of Bal Harbour.
“There are 35 states, even Texas [which Becket successfully sued] with much smaller Jewish populations, or none in their system, where it’s policy,’’ he said.
In fact, Florida did maintain a “Jewish dietary accommodation’’ from 2003-2005, then scrapped the program as expensive and burdensome, despite a study group’s recommendations to keep it, and has been fighting reinstatement ever since.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that states and the federal prison must give prisoners special diets if they request them for religious reasons.
In the appeal, the Eleventh Circuit ruled that “the evidence submitted by the [corrections department] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial,” and that the Department of Corrections made “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals such that the plans adopted by those other institutions would not work in Florida.”