Court orders Michigan to provide inmates with kosher meals

Federal Court also rules inmates must be provided with holiday-specific kosher meals, not just kosher snacks from prison commissary.

Dan Verbin ,

Prisoner (illustrative)
Prisoner (illustrative)
iStock

A US court has ruled that Michigan prisons must provide kosher meals to Jewish inmates, stating that the availability of kosher meat snacks and dairy products from a commissary does not meet federal standards for religious accommodation.

The Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) will no longer be allowed to utilize a vegan meal option for inmates with religious dietary needs, and must provide kosher meals and dairy products for holidays to Jewish inmates, the Sixth Circuit Court said on Tuesday, according to Courthouse News.

The decision upholds a lower court ruling in favor of the prisoners’ class action lawsuit originally filed in 2013, and agreed with their claim that prison commissary kosher snacks did not meet their needs, as even if they could have purchased as much as they wanted, they were not allowed to eat the snacks during meals.

The court’s decision was unanimous. The MCOD was ordered to adhere to the kosher observance of Jewish inmates under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

"Both [plaintiffs Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin] were raised eating kosher diets in Jewish households that included meat and dairy," Nalbandian said. "[Ackerman] said that failing to properly celebrate with these foods 'diminishes ... the fullness' and 'heartfelt meaning' of holiday celebrations."

During the trial, a rabbi spoke about the important role kosher meat and dairy products play in Jewish life.

Though Ackerman admitted that he could consumer a “glass of milk” during Shavuot, and that cheesecake was not necessary, the court nonetheless ruled that because a Jewish inmates organization had previously provided cheesecake, a decision to allow cheesecake by a lower court would be upheld.

The MDOC had also argued that it would cost $10,000 to provide kosher foods for an inmate which would constitute too heavy a financial burden. However, the court disagreed.

The court’s ruling stated: "Even if a prison's choice to minimize burdens by allowing prisoners to earn wages and buy commissary items might in some case take the wind out of a prisoner's claim… that's not what we have here. Even if these prisoners spent every last penny on beef sticks and dry milk, prison policy would still bar their religious exercise of eating those items as part of their meals."



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