Max Moussazadeh, a convicted murderer, has won the right to have kosher food provided to him. The U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the lower court’s ruling which found that Moussazadeh’s request for kosher food was “insincere,” and instead ruled that to deny him kosher food would constitute an infringement on his religious beliefs.
Moussazadeh was convicted and sentenced to 75 years in prison for his part in the fatal shooting of a Texas man in 1993. The victim was shot to death by three of Moussazadeh’s accomplices, while he served as the lookout during a robbery in Houston.
Although Moussazadeh was incarcerated at a prison in Rosharon, Texas, which had a “kosher kitchen,” he was later transferred to another facility where kosher products were available for purchase, but which did not provide free kosher meals for its inmates.
In his original legal filing on July 15, 2005, Moussazadeh complained that he was “forced to eat non kosher foods” and asked that he be “allowed to receive kosher meals because it is part of [his] religious duty.” He claimed that he was born and raised Jewish, and that his family kept a kosher household. He also claimed that his faith required him to “eat kosher foods,” and not being able to do so forced him to violate his religious beliefs, for which he believed “God would punish” him.
The lower court had rejected Moussazadeh’s request at least in part because it found that his religious beliefs were not sincere, but the Court of Appeals found that,
In addressing whether Moussazadeh’s religious beliefs were sincere, the district court looked to his words and actions but incorrectly concluded that those factors established insincerity ‘as a matter of law. ‘ The court decided that Moussezadeh was insincere based on a combination of three findings. First it found that he purchased “nonkosher” food items including cookies, soft drinks, coffee, tuna, and candy.
The Court rebuked the lower court for failing to understand that there is a difference between food certified as kosher and food that is not certified as such. In its opinion, the Court of Appeals found that the lower court incorrectly “concluded that items that were not certified as kosher were per se not kosher, but, as Moussazadeh and amicus curaie relate, a certificate does not render food kosher or nonkosher.” As a matter of American law, “Individuals may practice their religion in any way they see fit, and ‘it is not for the Court to say it is an unreasonable one.’”
Most state prisons and the federal government provide a kosher diet to all observant inmates, while Texas remains one of only 15 states that do not. According to The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which was co-counsel for this case with Latham & Watkins, “the cost of feeding all observant Jewish inmates in its prison system would be less than 0.02% of its annual food budget.”
“If thirty-five states and the federal government can provide kosher diets to all of their observant Jewish inmates, there is no reason Texas cannot do the same,” said Luke Goodrich, Deputy General Counsel of the Becket Fund.
The case was sent back to the lower court to determine whether there was an alternative way of providing Moussazadeh with kosher food which was less expensive and addressed any security issues.
About the Author: Lori Lowenthal Marcus is the US correspondent for The Jewish Press. She is a recovered lawyer who previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools.
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