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New York Prisoner Entitled to Vegetarian, 
Dairy Tolerant, Kosher Diet Under RLUIPA

On July 10, 2018, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals held the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) by refusing to accommodate dietary restrictions required by a prisoner’s Nazarite Jewish faith.

As part of his religion, state prisoner DeAndre Williams believes he must consume a grape free, egg free, vegetarian kosher diet. He also is dairy intolerant. DOCCS accommodated Williams’ dairy allergy, but regularly did so in ways that violated his religious needs. For example, it replaced Williams’ cream cheese with grape jelly or his cheese with meat.

Due to his efforts to follow his faith’s dietary restrictions, Williams mainly confined his diet to hot cereal, bread, fruit, vegetables, soup and peanut butter. He tried to trade food he could not eat with other prisoners, but that was discouraged by guards.

Williams began filing grievances concerning his dietary issues in 2002, and after repeated denials he filed suit in federal court in 2011. DOCCS moved for summary judgment, arguing that accommodating his religious diet was “extremely expensive and administratively burdensome.” While the district court found Williams was sincere in his religious beliefs and that his religious practice was “substantially burdened,” it deferred to DOCCS and granted summary judgment for the defendants.

On appeal, the Second Circuit appointed pro bono counsel to represent Williams. The appellate court cited to the standard in Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015) [PLN, Aug. 2015, p.50], which held that courts need not accept the government’s claim that its interest is compelling on its face, and that evidence of a “policy’s underinclusiveness relative to ‘analogous nonreligious conduct’ may cast doubt on both whether the government’s asserted interest is compelling and whether that policy actually is the least restrictive means of furthering that interest.”

The Second Circuit observed that RLUIPA codified Congress’ preference that prisons may have to incur additional costs to accommodate prisoners’ religious freedoms.
As to the issue of costs, DOCCS did not show how much accommodating Williams’ dietary needs, or enacting his alternative suggestions, “such as not placing foods he cannot eat on his tray or giving him more of certain foods the DOCCS already prepares,” would cost.

The Court of Appeals also found the “analogous religious conduct” of accommodating comparable medical dietary restrictions led it to question the DOCCS’ interest in cost efficiency. The Court held the defendants had failed to meet their burden, and their policy was not the least restrictive means of accommodating Williams’ dietary requirements. Additionally, since the litigation began, DOCCS began supplying prisoners with packaged kosher diets – but they were not available at Williams’ facility. That further cast doubt on DOCCS’ position with respect to the “burden” of accommodating Williams’ religious needs.

In conclusion, the Second Circuit expressed its “disappointment with the DOCCS’ approach to litigating [this] case,” adding, “We would have to be naïve to overlook that it is in the government’s interest to wage a war of attrition that draws out judicial proceedings until the plaintiff-inmate is released and the case is mooted.”

In vacating the district court’s order, the Second Circuit said it expected a “speedy resolution of this dispute.” The case remains pending on remand, with the parties engaged in settlement negotiations. See: Williams v. Annucci, 895 F.3d 180 (2d Cir. 2018). 


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Related legal case

Williams v. Annucci