Rich v. Buss (current)

Image: Rich v. Buss (current)

The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an appeal on behalf of Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate who has been denied a kosher diet by the Florida Department of Corrections (DOC). The Becket Fund is arguing that denial of kosher food violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA), because it forces Rich to choose between his religious practice and adequate nutrition.

“Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. “Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a handful of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism.”

The DOC claims that it is denying a kosher diet in order to control costs and maintain security. However, at least thirty-five states and the federal government currently provide kosher diets without problems of cost or security. Moreover, from 2004 to 2007, the DOC provided a Jewish dietary program that cost only a fraction of one percent of its annual food budget and did not result in any security problems. It cancelled kosher diets in 2007 against the advice of special commission appointed to study the issue.

“If states as diverse as California, New York, and Texas can provide Jewish inmates with kosher food, Florida can do the same. It’s not that difficult,” added Goodrich.

After the Becket Fund filed its opening brief, eighteen different organizations filed five amicus briefs supporting Mr. Rich. The amici represent a broad array of Jewish, Christian, Hindu, and nonreligious groups, including the ACLU, the National Association of Evangelicals, the American Jewish Committee, Aleph Institute, the Rabbinical Council of America, and the Hindu American Foundation.

On August 14, 2012, the United States also filed a lawsuit against the DOC over its denial of a kosher diet. This is the first time in the thirteen-year history of RLUIPA that the United States has filed its own suit against a sovereign state.

On May 14, 2013 the Eleventh Circuit ruled that “the evidence submitted by the [DOC] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial.” Moreover, at least thirty-five states and the federal government currently provide kosher diets without problems of cost or security. In light of this evidence, the Eleventh Circuit held that the DOC made only “meager efforts to explain why Florida’s prisons are so different from the penal institutions that now provide kosher meals such that the plans adopted by those other institutions would not work in Florida.”

The case will now be remanded to federal district court for further proceedings. At the same time, the DOC is facing a parallel lawsuit by the United States Department of Justice over the same policy of denying kosher diets.