Two Jewish inmates incarcerated in Michigan sued the state’s Department of Corrections (MDOC) over an unusual claim of religious discrimination: that the prison system’s practice of serving strictly vegan meals to prisoners with faith-based restrictions on the consumption of animal products (chiefly the kashrut – and halal-observant) infringes on their observance of the Jewish practice of eating meat and dairy on the Sabbath and holidays, and dairy – particularly cheesecake – on Shavuot.
A federal district judge decided in favor of the inmates, Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, and on appeal by the MDOC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit unanimously upheld the judgment in a 23-plus-page decision, Ackerman v. Washington.
When the MDOC instituted so-called “universal vegan meals” for religious inmates in 2013, it also discontinued the practice of allowing outside organizations (such as Jewish charities) to send prisoners food for the holidays, and disallowed the consumption of meat or dairy at mealtimes, including snacks inmates may have purchased from the commissary. Thus, mealtimes on Shabbat and festivals were strictly meat- and dairy-free.
Curiously, the plaintiffs asserted that their faith requires them to consume both a meat and a dairy meal on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. The court had only to find these beliefs “sincerely held” and that they were substantially burdened by MDOC policy in order to constitute a valid claim under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a federal statute that protects the exercise of religious freedom in specific contexts. Reviewing the plaintiffs’ testimony, the rabbi’s affidavit they submitted (quoting the Code of Jewish Law, no less), and other evidence, the court accepted their prima facie religion-based claims.
Defending its policy, the MDOC cited cost issues and concerns about a slippery slope in which the kitchens of its prison system, which recognizes 28 different religions, would become “an unwieldy and expensive ‘religious-accommodation buffet,’” but failed to proffer sufficient evidence of those potential costs. The court noted that “the prisoners are not requesting complete exclusion from the universal diet – they are asking for low-cost supplementation (based on trial testimony, cartons of milk and four ounces of turkey would do at least for most of the days). For these reasons, the burdens here do not serve compelling state interests.”
A full three paragraphs of the Sixth Circuit’s decision focused on the question of cheesecake on Shavuot – which the plaintiffs had conceded was not mandatory but about which they demonstrated sufficient religious significance for the court to find in their favor.
Justice is served.