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Michigan Prisons Ordered to Provide Jewish Prisoners Meat and Dairy on Sabbath and Holidays; Sixth Circuit Affirms

by David M. Reutter

On October 12, 2021, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed a district court’s judgment in favor of Michigan prisoners who sought a kosher meal with meat and dairy on the Jewish Sabbath and four important Jewish holidays, as well as cheesecake on the Shavuot holiday. The decision arrived just before the state Department of Corrections (DOC) agreed to this and other changes to its policies regarding religious activities, following an investigation by the federal Department of Justice. [See: PLN, Mar. 2022, p.34.]

The Court’s opinion was issued in an appeal bought by prisoners Gerald Ackerman and Mark R. Shaykin, the representatives in a class-action lawsuit filed under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) that alleged DOC forces prisoners to eat a vegan meal on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, substantially burdening their sincere religious beliefs.

Prior to 2013, DOC provided kosher meals with meat and dairy, and it allowed charitable Jewish organizations to bring in traditional religious foods for holidays. But in 2013 the agency implemented a universal vegan meal for all prisoners who qualify for a religious diet. It also ended the practice of accepting donations from Jewish organizations for holidays.

Ackerman and Shaykin claimed their religious convictions required them to eat a meal with meat and dairy products on the Jewish Sabbath and four Jewish holidays: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot. They also asserted that the Shavuot holiday traditionally includes cheesecake as the dairy product.

The meat and dairy argument went to trial in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which issued a bench opinion in favor of the prisoners and a class of other DOC prisoners similarly situated, who had been appointed Daniel E. Manville of Ferndale as class counsel. Concluding that DOC’s policies substantially burden their sincere religious beliefs, the Court ordered DOC to provide on the requested days kosher meat and dairy products “of a quantity comparable to the meat and dairy products served to all other prisoners.” Plaintiffs also got their kosher cheesecake on Shavout.

DOC appealed. At the Sixth Circuit, where Detroit appellate attorney Thomas J. Rheaume, Jr., joined Manville in representing the prisoners, the judges rejected the argument that plaintiffs lacked sincerity, finding it was supported by the prisoners’ own testimony, the Code of Jewish Law, as well as a rabbi’s post-trial affidavit.

The Court also agreed with the district court that the prisoners’ failure to spend their money in the commissary on the missing items had no impact upon the sincerity of their beliefs. Moreover, DOC prohibits prisoners from taking commissary items into the chow hall, and as the prisoners testified, the Code of Jewish Law requires “meat during the meal,” not as snacks or post-meal supplements. Because DOC’s policy completely bars them from doing so, “Ackerman and Shaykin’s failure to buy meat and dairy products at the commissary does not undermine the sincerity of their belief here,” the Court ruled.

As to the cheesecake, the district court “reached the defensible conclusion that it should credit the prisoners’ testimony that they believe cheesecake is mandatory on Shavuot. That’s all that’s required,” the Sixth Circuit wrote in affirming the conclusion.

The Court also rejected DOC’s argument that it had an interest in saving $10,000 in annual expenses by not providing the requested food items. Noting that this is just a “tiny drop” representing 0.02% of DOC’s $39 million food budget, the Court said moreover that RLUIPA “may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise.” See: 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-3(c).

Thus the district court’s judgment in favor of plaintiffs was affirmed. See: Ackerman v. Washington, 16 F.4th 170 (6th Cir. 2021). 

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Related legal case

Ackerman v. Washington