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Muslim inmate sues central Indiana sheriff over halal diet

August 18, 2016

A Muslim inmate is using Indiana's religious freedom statute in part to sue a central Indiana sheriff for denying him a diet that follows Islamic dietary laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana filed the federal lawsuit Wednesday on behalf of Gannon Thomas against the Boone County Sheriff's Office over its refusal to serve him a halal diet.

It accuses the Boone County Jail of violating Thomas' First Amendment rights and his rights under Indiana's contentious Religious Freedom and Restoration Act signed by Gov. Mike Pence last year. The religious freedom law states government entities cannot pose a substantial burden to a person's exercise of religion.

Thomas, 27, of Indianapolis is a practicing Muslim and has objected to being served pork and other meat that was not slaughtered according to Islamic laws, the lawsuit said. He was arrested June 21 on burglary and probation violation charges, but the lawsuit said he objected to the food during previous incarcerations "on a number of occasions since 2010."

After being served pork during his current incarceration, he complained and filed a grievance, the lawsuit said. The jail commander told him "the only special diets provided were medical diets, and diets based on choice, 'such as vegan, vegetarian, or religion,' were not provided," the lawsuit said.

"He continues to be served pork and other meat that he believes is not halal," it said.

The lawsuit seeks an injunction against the jail, as well as unspecified damages.

A message seeking comment was left for Boone County Sheriff Mike Nielsen.

The Republican-backed religious freedom law drew a quick and largely negative national backlash after it was signed by Pence, with critics saying it sanctioned discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people on religious grounds. After the NCAA, the gamer convention GenCon and other business interests raised the possibility of moving events from Indiana, lawmakers hastily made changes days after the signing.

In 2009, the ACLU of Indiana sued the Indiana Department of Correction on behalf of an inmate who claimed he was being denied kosher meals. A federal judge ruled in favor of the inmate in that case. The state initially appealed the ruling, but later dropped its appeal.

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