What if you had to choose between practicing your faith and receiving adequate nutrition? That choice became a reality for Bruce Rich, who was twice forced to go without regular meals for over a month. The reason? Mr. Rich is an Orthodox Jewish prisoner in Florida, and Florida is one of the last remaining states in the country that denies a kosher diet to Jewish prisoners.
In 2012, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an appeal on behalf of Mr. Rich, arguing that denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA)—a landmark civil rights law designed to protect religious freedom in prison. Congress enacted RLUIPA unanimously in 2000, finding that, “[w]hether from indifference, ignorance, bigotry, or lack of resources, some institutions restrict religious liberty in egregious and unnecessary ways.”
In response to Mr. Rich’s lawsuit, Florida claimed that denying a kosher diet was necessary to control costs and maintain security. But at the time, no less than thirty-five states and the federal government already provided kosher diets without problems of cost or security. And from 2004 to 2007, Florida itself 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.
On May 14, 2013 the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor, finding that “the evidence submitted by [Florida] on summary judgment in support of its position is insubstantial.” The Court said that Florida 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.” It then sent the case back to the district court for further proceedings.
Shortly thereafter, a district court in a separate case, relying on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision, ordered Florida to begin providing a kosher diet to all observant Jewish inmates, including Mr. Rich, no later than July 1, 2014. In response to this victory, Mr. Rich voluntarily withdrew his lawsuit.
In addition to winning Mr. Rich’s appeal at the 11th Circuit, the Becket Fund won a previous kosher diet case against Florida, kosher diet cases against Georgia and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. The Becket Fund has never lost a case when suing a prison system over the denial of a kosher diet.