Appeals Court Hears Case Over Kosher Food in Florida Prisons

MIAMI (Hamodia/AP) -

Judges seemed to take a critical view of the state of Florida’s request for permission to discontinue a kosher meals program for thousands of religiously observant prison inmates in the event that its prison system’s chronic budget problems worsen.

Circuit Judge William Pryor said that if and when serious budget problems actually surface, the state corrections secretary could simply ask a judge to modify prior rulings which obligated Florida to continue providing kosher meals.

An attorney representing the Florida Department of Corrections told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the estimated $12.3 million additional cost of kosher meals could become prohibitive if other budget needs arise.

Until then, “We know the secretary can pay for it, because the secretary has paid for it,” Judge Pryor said in response to the argument.

The state is appealing a decision by a Miami judge requiring kosher food for inmates who request if for religious reasons. That includes not only Jewish inmates, but Muslims, Seventh-Day Adventists and people of other faiths as well, the corrections department said.

The lawsuit was brought against the state in 2012 by the U.S. Justice Department under a federal law guaranteeing the religious rights, including diets, of people in prisons and other government institutions. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 bill, focused on preventing government from placing “substantial burdens on the free exercise of religion,” particularly as it pertains to zoning laws and prisoners.

About 10,000 of Florida’s roughly 100,000 inmates get the meals, which are currently available in about two-thirds of the state’s prisons, attorney Lisa Kuhlman Tietig said.

An amicus brief submitted by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty posited that the large figure was the result of a faulty vetting process rather than actual need. According to a 2014 study, 1,500 of New York State’s 56,000 prisoners ate kosher meals.

Florida argues that it simply wants budget flexibility — not court-mandated oversight — if it needs to shift money away from the kosher program in the future to address potential needs such as prison security, deteriorating buildings, outdated prison transport vehicles and inmate medical costs, Tietig told the panel.

“It should be a policy decision if there’s a substantial cost,” she said. “We have a substantial, compelling interest in cost savings.”

Justice Department attorney Christopher Wang countered that cost is not a compelling reason to drop a federally required kosher food program. Thirty-five other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons all provide the meals without problems, he said.

“The budget deficit in and of itself is not sufficient,” he said. “They are doing it. They haven’t had this parade of horribles.”

Rabbi Abba Cohen, Director of Agudath Israel of America’s Washington office, told Hamodia that “RILUPA was passed precisely to prevent states from doing what Florida is trying to do in this case.

“The idea of ‘least restrictive means’ that the law calls for means that the state has to prove in each specific case why it can’t accommodate religion; they [Florida] want an amorphous ruling that as a policy they shouldn’t be forced to make accommodations,” he said.

Rabbi Cohen said that the ruling could have ramifications that would affect the state of religious liberty law, far beyond prison issues.

“If we exempt the government from making accommodations whenever it entails expenses or other sacrifices, that could apply to any situation of public policy.”

The court is expected to issue a ruling in the coming months.