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SJ Reversed on Massachusetts Religious Diet Claims; MA Constitution Affords Greater Protections than U.S. Constitution

In a unanimous decision, Massachusetts' highest court reversed summary judgment on Muslim prisoners' claims that they were denied halal meat, which is required by their faith.

Muslim prisoners Rashard Rasheed and Nathaniel Bilal Ahmad believe their faith requires that they observe the Islamic festival of Eid-al-Fitr, marking the end of Ramadan (a month of fasting), "by eating meat of bud (cows, oxen or camel)." They also believe they must celebrate Eid-al-Adha, marking the pilgrimage to Mecca, "by consuming hady (sacrificed cattle)."

Until 2000, Muslim prisoners were allowed to satisfy their faith by purchasing compliant foods from private vendors. In 2000, however, the Massachusetts Department of Corrections (DOC) contracted with a single food vendor. Meals for the Eid festivals provided in 2000 and 2001 contained fish rather than beef. Subsequently, lamb was served at both festivals.

In separate actions, Rasheed and Ahmad challenged the religious diet and other restrictions upon their faith in state court. They alleged violations of the United States Constitution, Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the Massachusetts Constitution and state law. They sought injunctive and declaratory relief and damages.

The Superior Court dismissed the complaints in their entirety. On the religious diet claims, the court applied the "reasonable relationship test" of Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987) and upheld the restriction, "concluding that the limitation struck 'an appropriate balance between the needs of individual inmates and the institution as a whole." It denied all other challenges as "not sufficiently burdensome to warrant further judicial inquiry or relief."

The Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) agreed "with most of the judge's assessment of the case," but concluded "that the Massachusetts Constitution is more protective of the religious freedoms of prisoners than the United States Constitution, and that the proper standard of review to be applied to the infringement of such freedoms is consequently more demanding."

"In determining the constitutionality of department regulations and policies that burden the free exercise of religion by those in its custody," the court looks "to whether those regulations and policies advance compelling state interests, and, if so, are 'tailored narrowly in pursuit of those interests.' Attorney Gen. v. Desilets, 418 Mass. 316, 321 n.4 (1994)."

This is a stricter standard than under Turner. In reversing the lower court's grant of summary judgment on the religious diet claim, the SJC concluded that "it is undeniable that prohibiting an inmate from acquiring the food that he believes he must consume to comply with his faith, has the tendency to coerce him to eat that which does not. This is a substantial burden that must be subjected to further analysis under the standard we have articulated." The SJC then found that the DOC had "not established, sufficient for summary judgment ... that the religious festival meals required ... cannot be provided through its principal vendor." It also found that the record was inadequate concerning "the burden that would be incurred if the department sought to acquire meals consistent with" the prisoners' faith.

Although the Court reversed summary judgment on the prisoners' claims for injunctive and declaratory relief, it upheld qualified immunity on their damages claims. Consulting court decisions which considered the issue before 2002, the SJC determined that "a reasonable prison official could have concluded that Muslim inmates did not have an established right to halal meat (rather than pork-free or vegetarian meals), that he had broad discretion in the matter of prison dietary alternatives, and that his actions limiting menu options were lawful."

Neil McGaraghan, counsel for Rasheed and Ahmad, applauded the SJC's ruling. "It recognizes the long history of the importance of religion in the commonwealth," he said. "Dating back hundreds of years, religion has been recognized to be one of those fundamental rights worth enshrining in the Declaration of Rights and specifically extended to inmates."

While the Supreme Judicial Court granted relief in Rasheed's case, the Court affirmed the dismissal of Ahmad's suit on the defendants' motion for summary judgment. See: Rasheed v. Commissioner of Correction, 446 Mass. 463, 845 N.E.2d 296 (Mass. 2006); and Ahmad v. DOC, 446 Mass. 479, 845 N.E.2d 289 (Mass. 2006).

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Related legal cases

Rasheed v. Commissioner of Correction

Ahmad v. DOC