Rich v. Buss
Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner in Florida, was denied a kosher diet while in prison, despite the fact that 35 other states and the federal government have long provided kosher diets to prisoners without problems of cost or security. Becket argued that denying him a kosher diet violated RLUIPA, a federal law protecting religious freedom, and the Eleventh Circuit ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor. After the ruling, Florida began providing kosher diets to Orthodox Jewish prisoners throughout the state.
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A prisoner’s choice: Faith or food
What if you had to choose between practicing your faith and receiving adequate nutrition? That choice confronted Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner. The reason? Mr. Rich is a Florida inmate, and Florida was one of the last remaining states in the country to deny kosher diets to Jewish prisoners.
Mr. Rich has kept kosher his entire adult life. In prison, he observes the Sabbath and is seen as a rabbi to other Jewish prisoners, teaching the Torah and serving as cantor during religious services. Mr. Rich believes that keeping a kosher diet is not a voluntary endeavor, but a fundamental tenet of his faith. Because he was denied a kosher diet, on two different occasions Mr. Rich was forced to go without regular meals for over a month. Mr. Rich sued in 2010 in federal district court, which ruled against him in 2012.
Becket defends religious liberty behind bars
In 2012, Becket filed an appeal on behalf of Mr. Rich, arguing that denial of a kosher diet violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (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, 35 other 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.
Unanimous victory for Jewish inmates
In May 2013, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in Mr. Rich’s favor, finding that “the evidence submitted by [Florida] … 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.” It then sent the case back to the district court.
Shortly after, 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 Eleventh Circuit, Becket has won previous kosher diet cases against Florida, Georgia, and Texas, and assisted in a similar victory against Indiana. In fact, Becket has never lost a kosher diet case against a prison system.
Importance to religious liberty:
- Individual freedom: Individual religious freedom encompasses more than just thought or contemplation—it involves action. Individuals must be free to follow their religious convictions into practice, including when they are incarcerated.
- RLUIPA: Like the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) was passed with bipartisan support. RLUIPA ensures religious liberty in two areas where it is most vulnerable: land use and prisons.