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Eleventh Circuit: Florida Prisoners Must be Provided Kosher Meals

by David Reutter

The Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) must provide prisoners with the option of receiving kosher meals, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held in affirming a district court’s grant of summary judgment and a permanent injunction.

As previously reported in PLN, the U.S. Department of Justice sued the FDOC in 2012 under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) to obtain declaratory and injunctive relief requiring state prison officials to provide kosher meals. [See: PLN, May 2014, p.14].

The FDOC put its full strength into fighting the suit, costing taxpayers nearly $500,000. In its July 14, 2016 ruling, the Eleventh Circuit began by noting the FDOC’s flip-flopping on the provision of kosher meals since 2004, culminating in a pilot program at the Union Correctional Institution in 2011.

“The only choice for prisoners outside the pilot program with [orthodox] religious obligations was, in the words of one prisoner, to ‘[d]o what a hungry man does, and pray [] for understanding,’” the Court of Appeals wrote.

The district court’s December 2013 preliminary injunction, which later became a permanent injunction, changed the legal landscape by ordering the FDOC to provide kosher meals and prohibiting enforcement of its waiting period, doctrinal sincerity test, ten percent missed meal rule and zero tolerance policy on violations. [See: PLN, March 2016, p.53].

As of March 2015, the FDOC had approved 9,543 prisoners to receive kosher meals. Participation in the kosher meal program declined over time, “in part because prisoners without sincere religious beliefs tired of the repetitive and cold meals.”

Initially, the FDOC used “nationally recognized, religiously certified prepackaged processed foods.” It then steadily reduced kosher meals to its current menu of “peanut butter, cereal, bread, sardines, cabbage, beans, carrots, crackers and an occasional piece of fruit; all served cold.”

The Eleventh Circuit found the FDOC had failed to show “that the cost of providing kosher meals is so high” that it constituted a compelling reason not to provide that option. The prison system’s regular meal menu, which is laden with textured vegetable protein, costs $1.89 per prisoner per day. By contrast, kosher meals cost about $3.55 per day.

While state prison officials contended the $12 million annual cost of kosher meals in its $54 million food budget – out of the FDOC’s overall $2.2 billion budget – was unsustainable, the Court of Appeals noted the FDOC’s chief procurement officer had said the cost of kosher meals was “sustainable ... going forward.”

Objections to mere “costs,” without more, required the appellate court to “affirm the summary judgment” and permanent injunction granted by the district court to the Department of Justice. The FDOC had also failed to prove that denial of kosher meals was the least restrictive means of furthering a governmental interest when weighed against prisoners’ religious rights under RLUIPA.

The district court’s order was affirmed. The case remains pending on remand, with the FDOC submitting monthly reports to the court regarding its kosher meal program. See: United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections, 828 F.3d 1341 (11th Cir. 2016). 

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Related legal case

United States v. Secretary, Florida Department of Corrections