Michigan prisons ordered to be less restrictive to religious beliefs

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Capital News Service

LANSING — A case initiated by Jewish inmates has resulted in the Department of Corrections being ordered to be less restrictive when it comes to meeting the needs of sincerely held beliefs of all religions.   

Civil rights advocates say a recent ruling by the 6th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals could strengthen broader protections for all religious inmates in the state.  

The case stems from a lawsuit filed by a Jewish nmate in 2013 in response to a change in prison regulations that categorized any prisoner who wanted a “religious diet” to be provided a vegan diet to better conform to the department’s 28 recognized religious groups.

While a vegan diet may be compatible with many religions, including Buddhism and Islam, it is not acceptable to Orthodox Jews under the Code of Jewish Law that mandates meat and dairy on the Sabbath and ritualizes the cooking process under regulations broadly known as kosher laws. 

The change was inconsistent with a federal law known as the Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act (RLUIPA), which protects the sincerely held religious beliefs of inmates, said Carolyn Normandin, the director of the Michigan chapter of the Anti-Defamation League

Previous decisions regarding that law hinged on proof that prisoners had to confirm the sincerity of their belief.

Court documents from the case say the judges felt that the burden of proof falls primarily on the prison system to show that it is meeting the needs of individual inmates in the least restrictive way.

“They were trying to accommodate with a one-size-fits-all approach,” Normandin said. “And that does not comport in terms of Jewish law in terms of meat and dairy.”

The case also helps more groups than just Jewish inmates, according to prisoner rights advocates, who said that strong protections afforded to one group are shared by all once the case became legal precedent.

“It’s a solid opinion, and it’s helpful in other religious cases with how thoroughly they went through all the different elements involved with establishing an RLUIPA case.” said Daniel Manville, the lead attorney on the case and the director of the Michigan State University Civil Rights Clinic. “It’s going to be very helpful in future cases.”

In the court case, the Department of Corrections also brought up the availability of kosher items at the prison commissary as an alternative option for Jewish inmates. That point was countered by the inmates’ belief that kosher ingredients must be eaten as part of a meal, not as a snack according to court documents.

Currently, the department does not allow commissary items to be consumed in prison cafeterias, and at the time it didn’t provide milk to inmates who were on a religious vegan diet.

In his opinion for the case, U.S. Judge John Nalbandian said that Corrections “had not shown that the burdens serve a compelling interest in the least restrictive way” and explained that legally, “second-best options were not options.”

“The prisoners’ ability to purchase commissary kosher meat and dairy items is irrelevant,” Nalbandian said. “Even if these prisoners spent every last penny on beef sticks and dry milk, prison policy would still bar their religious exercise of eating those items as part of their meals.”

That defense of religious liberties was applauded by civil rights groups like the American Civil Liberties Union. 

“People who are incarcerated retain basic constitutional rights like the freedom to practice their religion,” Dan Korobkin, the legal director of the Michigan chapter, said in a statement. “Adhering to religious dietary rules like eating kosher or halal food is a fundamental component of religious exercise that must be respected by prison officials.”

The court went further in its defense of religious practices than the inmates themselves expected. 

One item requested by plaintiff Mark Shaykin, cheesecake on the holiday of Shavuot, was initially denied by a lower court judge, but the appeals court overturned that decision and allowed it after hearing testimony from both inmates involved in the case that it was a traditional practice.

Gerald Ackerman, the other plaintiff in the case, testified that Jewish law required dairy and cake on the holiday, and he also interpreted that passage as “cheesecake.” The court decided that belief was sincerely held enough to qualify for religious protection.

This case was a definite career highlight, according to Manville, both for the civil rights it upheld and for a new title he’s earned. 

“They’re probably going to put that on my tombstone: the cheesecake man,” Manville said. “I mean, a federal court wrote a 26-page opinion on cheesecake?”

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