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California: Denial of Kosher Diet to Messianic Jew Violates RLUIPA

The California Court of Appeal, Third District, has held that the denial of a prisoner’s request to participate in the state prison system’s Jewish Kosher Diet Program (JKDP), on the sole ground that he was a Messianic Jew, violated the prisoner’s rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, et seq.

In July 2009, California state prisoner Margarito Jesus Garcia, incarcerated at Mule Creek State Prison, submitted a form requesting inclusion in the JKDP. On the form, Garcia identified himself as a practitioner of Messianic Judaism – a sect of Judaism whose adherents are followers of Jesus – and indicated that his faith required him to keep a kosher diet. His request was denied by Mule Creek’s Jewish Chaplain, who determined that Garcia’s Messianic beliefs were not consonant with the tenets of traditional Judaism.
Garcia then filed a petition for writ of habeas corpus in state court.

The denial of Garcia’s request for kosher meals was consistent with prison regulations (Cal. Code Regs., tit. 15 § 3054.2), which explicitly limit participation in the JKDP to prisoners deemed traditional Jews “by a Jewish Chaplain.” However, the Court of Appeal noted that “those regulations might just as readily have opened participation to all Jews or to all non-Christians or limited participation to Jews with red hair.”

Under RLUIPA, which prohibits imposition of a substantial burden on a prisoner’s religious exercise – and which defines “religious exercise” to include “any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief” – the primary issue was “not whether [the prisoner] is a Jew but whether his system of religious beliefs includes maintaining a kosher diet,” the court wrote.

In this case, prison officials did not dispute the sincerity of Garcia’s religious beliefs or his belief that he must maintain a kosher diet, nor did they demonstrate that the burden imposed on Garcia’s religious beliefs by virtue of his exclusion from the JKDP furthered a compelling governmental interest and was the least restrictive means of furthering that interest, as required by RLUIPA.

Thus, the Court of Appeal granted the habeas petition and ordered prison officials to allow Garcia to participate in the JKDP, or to transfer him to another facility where the JKDP was available. See: In re Garcia, 202 Cal.App.4th 892, 136 Cal.Rptr.3d 298 (Cal.App. 3 Dist. 2012).

Previously, California prison officials had agreed to provide a Muslim prisoner with access to the JKDP pending the implementation of a Religious Meat Alternate Program consistent with Islamic dietary requirements. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.47].

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Related legal case

In re Garcia