Florida court rules prisons must provide kosher meals
Washington, D.C.—Just two days after hearing oral argument, a federal court, relying heavily on Becket Fund Supreme Court victories, ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections must allow Jewish prisoners to practice their faith by providing them with kosher meals. Thirty-five states and the federal government already provide kosher diets for prisoners.
Before today’s ruling, Florida’s Department of Corrections was the only large prison system in the country that insisted it should remain free to refuse to provide kosher meals to observant Jewish prisoners, despite the fact that it already offers a variety of expensive medical diets for its prisoners.
“This is a huge win, and it perfectly shows how protecting religious liberty for any Americans ultimately protects it for all Americans,” said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. “The Court’s ruling relied on earlier Becket victories that protected the religious liberty of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. To put it simply, Jewish prisoners in Florida won’t have to go hungry because earlier courts protected the rights of Muslims prisoners in Arkansas to wear beards and Christian families in Oklahoma to run their businesses without abandoning their faith.”
Relying on several Becket Fund cases in its opinion, including two Supreme Court cases Holt v. Hobbs and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, the Court stated that the Department must lose because it “fail[ed] to explain why the Department cannot offer kosher meals when the Federal Bureau of Prisons and other states do so” and “failed to do more than “simply utter the magic word ‘costs.’” The Court recognized that the Department’s “costs” argument was “but another formulation of the ‘classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.’”
Thirty-five states and the federal government have all managed to balance their budgets while still protecting religious liberty. Moreover, the cost of providing kosher meals is estimated to be less than 0.02 percent of the Department’s multi-billion-dollar annual budget. And studies show that prisoners who can practice their faith while in jail are much less likely to be violent in jail or reoffend outside of jail.
“Allowing prisoners to practice their faith is better for them, better for prisons, and better for society,” said Blomberg.
Oral argument was heard on Tuesday. Last year, a federal district court ordered the Department to begin providing kosher meals for all observant Jewish inmates, and Florida appealed to the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals. In March, the Becket Fund filed an amicus brief urging the protection of the religious rights of all prisoners. This lawsuit is the first time the U.S. government sued a state prison system under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. Throughout the litigation, a diverse array of religious groups have supported kosher meals for Jewish prisoners, including Christians and Hindus.