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Indiana DOC’s Refusal to Provide Kosher Meals Violates RLUIPA

The Indiana Department of Corrections (DOC) must provide kosher meals to prisoners who require a kosher diet to properly exercise their religious beliefs, U.S. District Court Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson held on November 1, 2010.

Judge Magnus-Stinson’s decision was in response to a class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of all current and future DOC prisoners who request a kosher diet for religious reasons.
The suit alleged that the DOC’s termination of its kosher program for cost reasons violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). Until June 2010, the DOC provided pre-packaged kosher meals for lunch and dinner to prisoners who expressed a religious preference for a kosher diet. Breakfast meals were not pre-packaged.

Due to cost increases associated with providing Halal meals to Muslim prisoners, however, the DOC decided to stop providing all pre-packaged religious meals. Instead prison officials offered a vegetarian diet that it conceded was not kosher.

The DOC argued that “spiraling costs” alone constituted a “compelling government interest” supporting the termination of its kosher meal program. Judge Magnus-Stinson disagreed.

“The idea that cost alone could provide a compelling government interest,” she wrote, “directly contravenes Seventh Circuit precedent.” Further, the cost basis for ending the kosher meal program was specious, the court concluded, given that it was an increase in food costs associated with providing Halal meals – not kosher meals – that was the problem.

The “DOC has produced no evidence whatsoever that the cost of providing kosher foods to the more limited number of individuals in the class at issue would [be] so ‘massive,’” Judge Magnus-Stinson noted. Accordingly, the court held that the DOC had “failed to meet its burden of persuasion to show a compelling government interest under RLUIPA.”

Even if the DOC could show a compelling government interest in terminating its kosher meal program, it could not show that its vegetarian diet program was the “least restrictive means” under RLUIPA, the district court found.

The DOC attempted to shift the burden of proof as to the least restrictive means prong to the prisoner plaintiffs, but the district court cut the DOC short. “DOC seems to misunderstand or ignore the controlling law: Under RLUIPA, it is not the plaintiff’s burden to show that reasonable alternatives do exist – it is DOC’s burden to show that reasonable alternatives do not exist,” Judge Magnus-Stinson wrote.

And while such a showing was not the plaintiffs’ responsibility, the court noted that the plaintiffs had put forth several alternatives to a complete discontinuation of the kosher meal program that the DOC “provide[d] no response to.”

Accordingly, the court held that the DOC had failed to demonstrate that its termination of the kosher meal program was the least restrictive means under RLUIPA.

Separate from the class claims, Judge Magnus-Stinson also held that the DOC’s “75 percent” policy violated the First Amendment rights of the lead plaintiff in the case. While the kosher meal program was in effect, the DOC instituted a “75 percent” rule that required kosher diet participants to eat 75 percent of their meals or face removal from the kosher program.

The lead plaintiff, Matson Willis, refused to comply with the 75 percent rule by not eating breakfast because he believed – and the DOC conceded – that the breakfast meals were not kosher. The 75 percent policy was not supported by a legitimate government interest and did not satisfy any of the factors under Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78 (1987), the district court held. Willis was awarded nominal damages because he was terminated from the kosher meal program based on the 75 percent rule.

The plaintiff class was represented by Kenneth J. Falk of the ACLU of Indiana. See: Willis v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, 753 F.Supp.2d 768 (S.D. Ind. 2010).

State officials appealed the district court’s ruling on January 6, 2011. The court granted the defendants’ motion to stay the judgment pending appeal, but only as it related to nominal damages; the stay was denied as to injunctive relief. The appeal was subsequently dismissed after the parties reached an agreement concerning the court’s judgment, which included the payment of $60 in nominal damages and $50,000 in attorney fees and costs by the state.

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Related legal case

Willis v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction