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DOC violated religious rights in denying kosher meals

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A federal judge has found the Indiana Department of Correction was wrong to stop serving kosher meals to those whose religious practices required them to eat the specially prepared meals.

U.S. District Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson found this week the DOC violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act by denying kosher meals to inmates who request them for religious reasons. Maston Willis filed a suit, which became a class action, against the commissioner of the DOC; Dr. Stephen Hall, the director of religious services for the DOC; and Chaplain Merle Hodges at the Miami Correction Facility.

Willis is an orthodox Jew and he and others who kept kosher were able to receive the more costly pre-packed kosher meals at lunch and dinner. Those requiring special diets were given diet cards. Breakfast wasn’t made with kosher ingredients or prepared by kosher standards, so Willis did not eat it. In an effort to reduce costs, the DOC instituted a policy that required those with diet cards to eat at least 75 percent of their special diet meals.

Since Willis did not eat breakfast, his kosher diet privileges were revoked for falling below the 75 percent threshold. Then, the DOC discontinued pre-packaged kosher meals and began offering vegan meals for those requesting the special diet, as the vegan meals didn’t cost any extra to prepare by the company contracted by the DOC.

Grievances filed by Willis were denied, and he filed this suit, Maston Willis, et al., v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, et al., No. 1:09-CV-815. Judge Magnus-Stinson ruled in favor of Willis and the class in granting summary judgment on their complaint that denying them kosher meals violated the RLUIPA. Keeping kosher constitutes religious exercise under the act and the DOC substantially burdened the plaintiffs’ religious exercise when it denied them kosher food.

The DOC argued it had a compelling government interest to keep costs down and that’s why it cut the kosher meals, but increasing costs alone are not a compelling government interest, wrote the judge. This would also contravene 7th Circuit Court of Appeals precedent as ruled in Koger v. Bryan, 523 F.3d 789, 796 (7th Circ. 2008). She also found serving vegan meals is not the least restrictive means of achieving the compelling government interest; the DOC didn’t show that reasonable alternatives don’t exist and never considered whether there were less expensive kosher venders or the costs of creating a kosher kitchen at a DOC facility.

Judge Magnus-Stinson also found in Willis’ favor on his individual claim for declaratory relief under RLUIPA. Willis’ First Amendment rights were violated because the DOC’s enforcement of the policy against him failed each prong of the Turner test in determining the extent of inmates’ First Amendment rights. Also, since a First Amendment violation was found, a RLUIPA violation also exists, the judge noted.

She granted summary judgment in favor of Hall in Willis’ nominal damages claim, finding Hall not liable for damages. Judge Magnus-Stinson granted summary judgment for Willis in his suit for nominal damages against Hodges because he didn’t dispute Willis’ assertion that he knowingly violated Wills’ First Amendment rights when he confiscated Willis’ meal card.

Judge Magnus-Stinson ordered a hearing on the scope of injunctive relief on Nov. 30 because neither party has presented cogent argument as to whether an injunction should be issued nor illustrated what the injunction would entail.

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