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July 15, 2016  RSS feed
World News

Text: T T T

Federal Court: Florida must provide kosher meals for prisoners

JTA and Jewish Press staff

Just two days after hearing oral argument, a federal court ruled Thursday, July 14, that the Florida Department of Corrections must allow prisoners to practice their faith by providing them with kosher meals.

Thirty-five states and the federal government already provide kosher diets for prisoners.

The state asked the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta to overturn a 2015 decision by a Miami judge requiring kosher food for anyone who requests it, including Jews, Muslims, Seventh-day Adventists and people of other faiths, accounting for about 10,000 – or 10 percent – of all inmates.

The kosher meals program is estimated to cost the Florida Department of Corrections $12.3 million a year, according to the attorney representing the state, The Associated Press reported.

The state wants the flexibility to move money away from the kosher program, if necessary. Prison officials are concerned that if chronic budget problems worsen, the expense of the kosher meals could prohibit funding for critical issues such as prison security, deteriorating buildings, transportation and medical bills, state attorney Kuhlman Tieteg told the court Tuesday, July 12.

“It should be a policy decision if there is a substantial cost,” Tieteg said. “We have a substantial, compelling interest in cost savings.”

Justice Department attorney Christopher Wang countered that budgetary issues are not a compelling reason to drop a federally required kosher program that 35 other states implement without complaint.

“The budget deficit in and of itself is not sufficient,” he said. Other states “are doing it. They haven’t had this parade of horribles.”

Before the court’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 for Florida’s Jewish prisoners and for every American, because it supports the right to practice faith out of reach of government bureaucrats,” said Diana Verm, legal counsel for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case

“When prisoners are allowed to practice their faith, the rate of recidivism drops dramatically, violent incidents are less frequent in prisons, and prisoners maintain their human dignity. As the majority of other states have learned, paying $1.50 a day for kosher meals is well worth the value to prisons and society overall,” said Verm.

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