U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito filed an unusual dissent Monday when the Court declined to hear the case of a Jewish prisoner refused the right to study Torah with two fellow inmates.
In a hand-written petition to the Court, Israel Ben-Levi had asked the justices to review the decisions of a federal district judge and an affirmation by the U.S. Court of Appeals, according to The Washington Post.
The Supreme Court generally does not explain its decisions to decline hearing a case — thousands are declined each year. There has never before been a written dissent. On Monday alone, 550 cases were declined by the Court, according to The Miami Herald.
But somehow, the case of Ben-Levi v. Brown touched Justice Alito.
“The court’s refusal to grant review in this case does not signify approval of the decision below,” the judge wrote. “But the court’s indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.”
Although there was no quorum of 10 to meet the minimum requirements for a minyan, Ben-Levi contended that a smaller group would be better than nothing.
The justice agreed and said the prison policy treated Jewish groups differently than Christian or Muslim groups. “The courts below should have considered whether the policy imposed a substantial burden on Ben-Levi’s ability to exercise his religious beliefs, as he understands them,” Alito wrote. “Ben-Levi believes that relaxing the minyan requirement promotes his faith more than sacrificing group Torah study altogether.”
Prior to 2004, Ben-Levi was known as Danny Lee Loren, his birth name. At present he is being held in Green Correctional Institution, a minimum-security facility 80 miles east of Raleigh, North Carolina.
Both of the lower courts had upheld the decision by the prison to deny his request in 2012 to hold a “Jewish Bible Study” group at Hoke Correctional Institution in North Carolina, where he was being held at the time.
Ben-Levi wrote to the Supreme Court, “It seems that all other faith groups are allowed to meet, yet the Jewish inmates are discriminated against. I feel the religious rights of the Jewish inmates are being violated on a regular basis.”
Prison officials contended the claim was invalid because there was no quorum of 10 Jewish adults to establish a minyan. There was also no outside rabbi to supervise the study group, although the policy has since been revised to include “approved” inmates to lead study groups as well.
“Concerns have been raised in the past of inmates engaging in gang activity under guise of being members of the same religious faith group engaging in religious practices,” North Carolina Assistant Attorney-General Kimberly D. Grande told the Supreme Court in a brief.
Jewish law (Halakha) only requires a quorum of 10 men for certain prayer services; it does not require a quorum of 10 in order to study the Torah, and in fact such study is conducted in pairs or small groups in rabbinical institutions.
Hana Levi Julian