Judge: Kosher meals don’t infringe on Muslim inmate’s rights

A Muslim inmate in the Indiana Department of Correction is not entitled to a halal diet, a federal judge has ruled, finding that the inmate failed to prove that eating a kosher diet instead would violate his Islamic beliefs.

Judge James R. Sweeney of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana denied inmate Joshua Murphy’s request for a preliminary injunction on Monday.

Murphy, who is serving a five-year sentence for burglary at the Wabash Valley Correctional Facility, filed for a preliminary injunction in July, claiming violations of his rights under the First Amendment and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. He claimed that the meat provided in a kosher meal tray did not adhere to the Islamic regulations for halal meat, which he said he follows as a Sunni Muslim. He also claimed the halal food available for purchase in the prison commissary was too expensive.

The Indiana Southern District dealt with a similar claim in the case of Roman Lee Jones v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, 1:16-cv-2887.  In that case, the court ruled in the inmate’s favor because the kosher food provided to Roman Lee Jones did not include any meat at all. Jones had claimed that his sect of the Islamic religion required a meat-based diet.

“Mr. Murphy explicitly states that he follows ‘the very same sect as Roman Lee Jones’ and knows that Mr. Jones is being provided halal pre-packaged meat,” Sweeney wrote Monday. “In his reply, Mr. Murphy references — but does not provide quotes from or attachments to — an Islamic book called ‘Ascent to Felicity’ which is an Islamic creed that he contends ‘clearly states’ how to ritually slaughter meat and which meats to eat and not to eat. He additionally references that the Holy Qur’an states to ‘eat the Food of the People of the Book [.]’”

But, Sweeney continued, “(t)his does not demonstrate to the Court that Mr. Murphy’s beliefs require him to eat meat.”

In Jones, the issue was not that he was served a kosher diet, the judge wrote, but rather that he was served a vegetarian kosher diet. The relief in that case was a court order that Jones be provided a meat-based kosher diet so that he would not violate his religious beliefs by “foregoing meat provided by Allah.”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals later upheld the Jones decision.

“Though it is presumable that even members of the same religious sect could hold different beliefs, Mr. Murphy’s reference to the Jones case as support for his arguments is convoluted at best,” Sweeney wrote. “His attempts to reference Jones seem to cut both ways – that he should receive meat like Mr. Jones argued but that kosher meat is unacceptable, while kosher meat was Mr. Jones’ preference rather than his religious requirement.

“Mr. Murphy has not shown that his religious beliefs require him to eat meat,” Sweeney continued. “Moreover, his requests for relief reiterate this in his asking for the provision of a ‘halal meal’ or ‘halal meat.’ By Mr. Murphy’s own contentions, other than the kosher meat, he believes the kosher and Passover trays satisfy halal requirements in all other aspects.”

Finally, Sweeney pointed to a prison disciplinary proceeding that he said demonstrates why Murphy’s argument fails.

Murphy pleaded guilty in June 2019 to unauthorized possession of food items when he voluntarily took a regular tray despite being on a kosher diet. His kosher diet was revoked, but he reapplied in December 2019.

“In his application for a religious diet, Mr. Murphy wrote that he ‘wanted halal’ but was told that was not an option and stated, ‘I guess I take kosher to eat as half the way as Allah said to.’ Mr. Murphy was approved to receive a kosher diet on February 11, 2020, and continued to receive it when he filed his motion.

“… The defendant argues that kosher, ‘a diet which by most standards meets Halal, without a further showing of Plaintiff’s religious needs, does not constitute a substantial burden upon Plaintiff’s religious exercise,’” the judge concluded. “The Court agrees.

“For the aforementioned reasons, Mr. Murphy has not shown a likelihood of success on the merits, and for these same reasons, he has not persuaded the Court that he will suffer irreparable harm by continuing to receive a kosher diet.

The case is Joshua Wayne Murphy v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, 2:19-cv-00571.

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