Court Requires Kosher Meals For Florida Prisoners

DOJ seal United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

February 2014
Volume 59

Religious Freedom in Focus is a periodic email update about the Civil Rights Division's religious liberty and religious discrimination cases. Through vigorous enforcement of:

  • Federal statutes prohibiting religion-based discrimination in education, employment, housing, public facilities, and public accommodations;
  • Federal laws against arson and vandalism of houses of worship and bias crimes against people because of their faith; and
  • The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA);

the Civil Rights Division is working to protect the right of all people to practice their faiths freely and without discrimination.

Back issues of this newsletter may be found at You may also contact the Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination, Eric W. Treene, at (202) 353-8622.


A federal court in Florida on December 6, 2013 granted a preliminary injunction requiring the Florida Department of Corrections ("FDOC") to provide kosher meals to all prisoners who have a religious need to maintain a kosher diet by July 2014. The order, issued in the United States' suit against FDOC challenging its refusal to provide kosher meals to inmates under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), also requires Florida to submit an implementation plan outlining how it will make kosher food available by February 28, 2014.

FDOC is the only large correction system in the country that does not offer kosher meals. While it used to provide kosher meals to 270 prisoners, it discontinued the program in 2007, with the exception of a pilot program started in 2010 that has offered meals to only 8 to 11 prisoners.

Section 3 of RLUIPA forbids state prison practices that "substantially burden" prisoners' religious exercise unless the challenged practice is the least restrictive means of achieving a compelling government interest. The Civil Right Division filed suit in August 2012, contending that denying kosher meals imposed such a substantial burden on the religion of inmates requiring them, and that there was no justifiable reason not to provide the meals.

In response to the lawsuit, in March 2013 FDOC announced that it would implement a kosher food program. However, the Civil Rights Division found that the program failed to ensure that all those needing kosher meals would in fact get them, and asked the court to enter an injunction requiring a more carefully crafted policy. The Civil Rights Division highlighted numerous deficiencies in the program, such as its requirement that individuals wishing to obtain kosher meals eat a non-kosher vegan meal for 30 to 90 days prior to receiving kosher meals, and rules terminating prisoners from the kosher program for skipping meals or purchasing even a single item from the commissary deemed non-kosher by prison authorities. FDOC also reserved the right to discontinue the kosher program at any time, and refused to enter into any type of enforceable agreement or otherwise promise to continue the new kosher diet program in the future. The Civil Rights Division, in its filing and at the hearing, presented evidence that the Federal Bureau of Prisons and a majority of States offer kosher meals to all prisoners who seek such meals to exercise their religious beliefs. Since Florida's interests in prison security and efficient management are virtually identical to the institutions that provide kosher meals, the United States contends that there is no compelling reason why Florida cannot also provide kosher meals on a similar basis.

The current preliminary order will be in place until the court makes a final determination on the merits of the case. Trial is scheduled for August 2014. More information about the Civil Rights Division's enforcement of the institutionalized persons provision of RLUIPA is available on the Special Litigation Section's RLUIPA page.

Court Approves Settlement in Sabbath Accommodation Suit

On December 18, 2013, a federal court in Alabama approved a settlement in U.S. v. City of Birmingham, resolving the United States' suit alleging that the Birmingham, Alabama Police Department had failed to accommodate the Sabbath of a Messianic Jewish employee. The suit, brought in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, alleged that a public safety dispatcher was forced to resign after the police department denied her request for a work schedule allowing her to observe the Sabbath from sunset Friday through sunset Saturday.

As reported in Volume 58, in September 2013 the Civil Rights Division and the City reached a settlement requiring the dispatcher to be reinstated and given back pay, and requiring the city to develop and implement a religious accommodation policy for all employees.

More information about the Civil Rights Division's cases regarding religious discrimination in employment is available on the Employment Litigation Section website.

Court Dismisses RLUIPA Appeal After Settlement

On December 30, 2013, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit dismissed the appeal of a Georgia mosque's suit under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), after the mosque reached a settlement with the City of Alpharetta and the City Council approved its expansion plans.

As reported in Volume 52, the Civil Rights Division filed a friend-of-the-court brief and argued before the trial court that the court below had erred in granting summary judgment to the city. After oral arguments in February 2013, the Court of Appeals ordered the parties to attempt to settle the dispute.

The case, Islamic Center of North Fulton v. City of Alpharetta, arose out of the city's denial of a permit for the Islamic Center to expand on a site it has occupied since 1998. The suit alleged that the denial of the permit imposed a "substantial burden" on the religious exercise of the mosque, which had outgrown its space as its congregation has grown. The suit also alleged violation of RLUIPA's nondiscrimination provisions, focusing on the county's approval of several similarly sized church projects in recent years.

In the appeal, the United States argued that the district court applied the wrong standard for "substantial burden" under RLUIPA, and should have examined "whether the denial of the permit, viewed against the totality of the circumstances, actually and substantially inhibits the Center's religious exercise, rather than merely inconveniencing it." The United States also argued that the trial court should have applied the standard laid out by the Supreme Court in Village of Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp. (1977), which looks at the totality of the circumstances, including procedural irregularities and differential outcomes of similar projects, in evaluating zoning discrimination claims.

Further information on the Civil Rights Division's work enforcing the land use provisions of RLUIPA is available at the Housing and Civil Enforcement Section's RLUIPA page.

RLUIPA Highlighted on Religious Freedom Day

On January 16, in recognition of Religious Freedom Day, the White House blog carried a post by Melissa Rogers, Director of the White House Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnership, and Eric Treene, Special Counsel for Religious Discrimination with the DOJ Civil Rights Division, highlighting the ways in which the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) helps protect religious freedom in the United States.

They explain that RLUIPA was "passed by unanimous consent in 2000 with the support of a religiously and ideologically diverse coalition of groups, [and] seeks to ensure religious freedom in two important areas: the ability of religious communities to build places of worship and other religious institutions, and the ability of prisoners and other persons confined to institutions to continue to practice their faiths."

They also note various ways in which the Department of Justice has used RLUIPA over the past 12 and a half years to protect the land use rights of a wide range of religious communities in contexts including places of worship, religious schools, and faith-based social service providers. They also describe ways in which the rights of prisoners of many different faiths have been protected.

The full text is linked here.

Civil Rights Division Participates in Workshop in Greece on Religious Liberty

Attorneys from the Civil Rights Division and the Department of Homeland Security Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties held a three-day "Country-to-Country" workshop in Greece on protecting religious freedom and promoting religious tolerance. The workshop brought together U.S. government and private attorneys working in this area with Greek government officials, non-governmental organizations, and religious communities. The program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is part of the United States' efforts to implement UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) Resolution 16/18 on "Combating Intolerance, Negative Stereotyping and Stigmatization of, and Discrimination, Incitement to Violence and Violence Against, Persons Based on Religion and Belief."

The workshop followed similar recent programs in Bosnia-Herzigovina and Indonesia. Civil Rights Division attorneys Aaron Schuham and Karen Stevens led the program for the Civil Rights Division, along with Ehsan Zafar from the DHS Office for Civil Rights and Civil Liberties and Rajdeep Singh from the Sikh Coalition. Greek participants included prosecutors, police officials, and representatives from various government ministries, as well as representatives from Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, Orthodox, and Jehovah's Witness communities, and various human rights and interfaith organizations.

The workshop gave the U.S. participants the opportunity to share experiences with their counterparts in Greece about legal processes for protecting against religious discrimination and preserving religious liberty in construction of places of worship, employment, education, and many other areas. They also discussed the distinction between prosecutable hate crimes and protected speech, and ways to counter hateful and intolerant speech through education and community outreach rather than censorship. The program also discussed community engagement by the government with diverse communities as a means to advance religious freedom and tolerance.

Similar programs are planned for several other countries in the next year.

United States Department of Justice
Civil Rights Division

Updated August 6, 2015

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