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Fifth Circuit Holds Texas Prisoner has Right to Free Kosher Meals

Fifth Circuit Holds Texas Prisoner has Right to Free Kosher Meals

by Matt Clarke

On December 21, 2012, in a lawsuit that still remains pending, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals held that a Jewish prisoner in Texas has the right to receive free kosher meals.

Max Moussazadeh, 36, filed suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc, asserting a right to receive kosher meals when he was assigned to the Coffield Unit of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ). As a result of the litigation, TDCJ officials began allowing Jewish prisoners to purchase kosher meals from commissaries at four prisons that were denoted Basic Designated Jewish Units – the Darrington, Terrell, Stiles and Wynne Units. The TDCJ also opened a kosher kitchen at its only Enhanced Designated Jewish Unit, the Stringfellow Unit, and moved Moussazadeh to that facility. The district court then dismissed his suit as moot.

While the dismissal was on appeal, Moussazadeh was convicted of a disciplinary infraction, received a higher security classification and was transferred to the Stiles Unit. This prompted the Fifth Circuit to reverse the dismissal of his lawsuit because it was no longer moot, as he was no longer housed at Stringfellow where he could receive free kosher meals.

On remand, the district court granted the TDCJ’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Moussazadeh had not exhausted his administrative remedies because circumstances had changed since his original grievances were filed, and because Moussazadeh’s beliefs were not sincere as he had purchased non-kosher items, such as coffee and candy, from commissaries at the Stringfellow and Stiles Units. Moussazadeh again appealed.

The Fifth Circuit held that changes in circumstances were not a reason to require a prisoner to re-exhaust administrative remedies. The administrative exhaustion requirement of the Prison Litigation Reform Act is a barrier to initially filing a lawsuit, not to continuing one that has already been filed.

The Court of Appeals also held that the district court’s analysis of the sincerity of Moussazadeh’s beliefs was flawed in multiple ways. First, it confused commissary food items that were not certified to be kosher with being non-kosher. “Although certain adherents of Judaism may consume only certified kosher food, others will consume what is not per se non-kosher.” It is not for the courts to say how individuals may practice their religion. Further, even if Moussazadeh had purchased non-kosher food, that would not prove insincerity. “A finding of sincerity does not require perfect adherence to beliefs expressed by the inmate, and even the most sincere practitioner may stray from time to time,” the appellate court wrote. Further, the TDCJ had endorsed Moussazadeh’s sincerity by transferring him to the Stringfellow and Stiles Units so he could have access to kosher food.

The Fifth Circuit found the failure to provide a free kosher diet was a substantial burden on Moussazadeh’s religious practice. It rejected the TDCJ’s claim that providing kosher meals to prisoners in higher security classifications would strain the department’s food budget, noting that it would cost only $88,000 per year to provide every observant Jewish TDCJ prisoner with the most expensive type of pre-packaged kosher meals, which amounted to less than 0.005% of the prison system’s $183.5 million annual food budget. The district court’s judgment was reversed and the case remanded for further proceedings.

Moussazadeh was assisted on appeal by attorney Luke Goodrich of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, who observed that 35 state prison systems and the federal Bureau of Prisons provide kosher meals for Jewish prisoners. See: Moussazadeh v. TDCJ, 703 F.3d 781 (5th Cir. 2012), rehearing en banc denied.

Following remand, Moussazadeh was transferred back to the Stringfellow Unit – the TDCJ’s Enhanced Jewish Designated Unit – on April 18, 2013, where he was able to participate in the Jewish Dietary Program through the facility’s kosher kitchen. However, according to an April 4, 2014 status report filed with the district court, “there remains a possibility that TDCJ could transfer Mr. Moussazadeh to a different unit ‘because of custody level, required treatment or educational program, housing restriction, medical condition, nature of the offense, length of sentence, or other reason.’”

Accordingly, the parties stated they were “working in good faith to explore possible options for a settlement that would resolve the outstanding issues in this litigation,” and requested a stay pending settlement negotiations. The case remains ongoing.


Additional source: Houston Chronicle


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Related legal case

Moussazadeh v. TDCJ