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Michigan DOC Agrees to Expand Recognition of Religious Groups After DOJ Investigation

On October 29, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced it had reached an agreement with the Michigan Department of Corrections (DOC) that resolves an investigation begun nearly two years earlier into denial of religious exercise to some prisoners.

DOJ began its investigation on December 10, 2019, pursuant to the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, 42 U.S.C. §2000cc. At issue were DOC policies that:

• established a five-person minimum for group worship and religious activities;

• prohibited group religious practice for certain religious groups; and

• limited access to a kosher diet at Passover to those on the kosher diet year-round.

DOC agreed to implement revisions to its Policy Directive 05.03.150 and Operating Procedure 05.03.150A within 60 days to reflect the changes negotiated by DOJ that:

• reduce the minimum for group religious activities to two people;

• expand the permitted groups to include Thelema, Yoruba, Hinduism, and Hebrew Israelite; and

• remove the requirement that prisoners must be on the kosher diet year-round to receive the kosher-for-Passover meal.

“The religious rights of all people, including those detained inside our nation’s jails and prisons, must be protected,” said Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of DOJ’s Civil Rights Division.

“Federal law guarantees the right to freely exercise your religion to all Americans,” agreed Saima Shafiq Mohsin of the Eastern District of Michigan, the first Muslim appointed a U.S. Attorney.

Her counterpart in the Western District of Michigan, U.S. Attorney Andrew Byerly Birge, called the agreement an example of his office’s “commitment to protecting religious freedom for all.”

DOC also agreed to provide computer-based training to its prison officials, including guards as well as food service staff at all facilities involved in implementing revised policies. The agreement also gives DOJ access to documents and correctional facilities to assess compliance.

DOJ reserved the right to sue if DOC fails to implement and substantially comply with revised policies pursuant to the agreement any time within a two-year window before it terminates. The prison system bears the burden of proving its compliance, as well. However, the agreement specifically does not give prisoners any actionable legal rights.  

Additional source: Detroit News

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