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The Rights of Jewish Inmates to Receive Kosher Meals in Florida

Florida is one of a few states in the Union that does not have a kosher meal program for orthodox Jewish inmates. Instead, Florida prisons offer three menu options: the main menu, an alternate menu, and a vegan option. Although the state has eliminated pork products from all three of these menus, as of 2007, none of them was kosher. Florida has experimented, at various points, with implementing kosher meal programs at penitentiaries throughout the state. However, at no point were kosher meals available statewide, and in 2007, Florida discontinued all but a few kosher meal programs. In addition, the state has a very stringent “religious sincerity” test for Jewish inmates who want to eat kosher. The inmate has to have a consultation with a prison chaplain, eat either the alternative or kosher option for at least 60 consecutive days, and then consult with the chaplain again, all to prove his or her earnestness in desiring a kosher meal. State prison officials say that the meal program poses both cost and safety concerns. However, at no point during the state’s several trials with offering kosher meals has there been a safety incident as a result of offering the additional meal service. Meanwhile, Florida inmates whose genuine religious convictions require them to eat kosher can’t do so.

The Paramount Importance of Counsel in Arguing Religious Freedom Claims

In 2010, a Jewish Florida inmate by the name of Bruce Rich filed suit against the Florida Department of Corrections, alleging that Florida’s policy of not providing kosher meals to Jewish inmates who wanted them for sincere religious reasons violated theReligious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a law designed to protect prisoners’ constitutional freedoms of religion. However, Mr. Rich filed the lawsuit from prison without the assistance of a lawyer. While he did a fairly admirable job for someone without limited knowledge of the legal system, Mr. Rich’s lack of understanding of the procedures that govern a RLUIPA claim ultimately cost him. When the state department of corrections filed a motion for a summary judgment — a legal motion arguing that, based even on the limited evidence presented before trial, the case can be decided as a pure matter of law — Mr. Rich failed to adequately argue his side. Although he prepared an affidavit and compiled a few other supporting documents, he didn’t present a full-blown legal defense of his position, explaining why his claim should go to trial. As such, the trial court judge granted Florida’s motion for summary judgment. Mr. Rich’s case, it seemed, was over.

However, Mr. Rich wisely decided to hire counsel and file an appeal of the district court’s decision. On appeal, with full briefing by a lawyer, he contended that there was, in fact, merit to his claims, as evidenced by the fact that the United States Department of Justice had recently filed a lawsuit arguing that Florida’s lack of kosher meals was a constitutional violation — just as he had. As a result of the filing of his appellate brief and the DOJ lawsuit, Florida decided to voluntarily change its policy, and Mr. Rich’s prison is now implementing a kosher meal program. Further, Mr. Rich prevailed in his appeal, and was allowed to have his case proceed.

Having counsel — and, more importantly, having good counsel — can make all the difference in the world. If you, like Mr. Rich, are a prisoner seeking post-conviction relief (say, to protect your right to religious freedom while incarcerated), give attorney JeffreyS. Weiner, P.A. a call before deciding to go it alone.

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