Judge orders kosher meals at state prisons


News Service of Florida

A federal judge has ordered the Florida Department of Corrections to offer kosher meals to "all prisoners with a sincere religious basis for keeping kosher" by July 1.

The little-noticed ruling, signed Dec. 5, grants the U.S. Department of Justice a preliminary injunction forcing the state agency to offer kosher meals and to drop some of the restrictions on a kosher program at one state facility.

"Injunctive relief is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to hundreds of Florida prisoners who believe that keeping kosher is an important part of their religious beliefs," wrote U.S. District Court Judge Patricia Seitz in her decision.

The lawsuit concerns the state's Religious Diet Program, or RDP, currently in place only at Union Correctional Institution. According to Seitz's ruling, the state has continuously changed its timeframe for expanding the program, first saying it would be available statewide this year, then saying kosher meals would be available at five institutions next month, and then announcing an implementation date for just three of those locations.

The state has also maintained that it is not required to offer kosher meals under federal laws protecting religious liberty.

Seitz barred DOC from enforcing four rules used in the kosher program at Union:

• A 90-day waiting period that the state said it will no longer enforce.

• A requirement that inmates undergo a "test" to determine whether they qualify for the program, including answering a question about the specific religious laws that require them to eat kosher.

• The "10 percent rule," which drops a prisoner who fails to eat at least 90 percent of his or her meals.

• The "zero-tolerance rule," which removes an inmate from the program for a period of time if he or she is found to eat something prison officials say is not kosher.

The state has argued that offering kosher meals at every prison could become prohibitively expensive. If enrollment were the same as an old program offering kosher food, it would cost the state less than $1.1 million a year. But the Union program has an unexpectedly high enrollment, which could result in a cost of almost $54.1 million if it went statewide, according to Seitz's ruling.

But she said there were suspicions that the interest in the program at Union might not have had to do with religious fervor and could eventually decline.

"Thus, it appears that the high participation rate will not be maintained as the RDP continues and the 'bugs' in the system, which currently have made the RDP more desirable than standard prison fare, are worked out," she wrote.

In a filing dated last week, though, the state continued to argue that the policy would cost too much.

"To the extent that FDOC’s dietary policies impose a substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious practices, the FDOC asserts that the policies are in furtherance of compelling governmental interests in preserving the security and good order of its institutions and in allocating scarce governmental resources and that these policies reflect the least restrictive means of furthering those interests," the filing says.

A trial in the case is scheduled to begin Aug. 25.

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