Fla. DOC sued for not offering kosher meals

Published On: Aug 16 2012 12:56:30 PM EDT
MIAMI -

The federal government has sued Florida's Department of Corrections for not offering kosher meals to all prison inmates.

In its lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court in Miami, federal officials say that by refusing to offer the strict religious diet in line with Jewish beliefs, the state "forces hundreds of its prisoners to violate their core religious beliefs on a daily basis."

The Justice Department says Florida is violating a federal law that prohibits state and local governments imposing burdens on prisoners' ability to worship. The government wants the kosher meal program reinstated.

A message left Thursday morning for the state corrections spokeswoman was not immediately returned.

Kosher food is prepared according to Jewish dietary laws. Florida stopped offering kosher meals to eligible prisoners statewide in 2007, over the objections of a study group it commissioned to review the Jewish Dietary Accommodation Program.

An average of 250 prisoners a day received kosher meals through the program, including Muslim prisoners, because the state prison system does not offer halal food. Rules on halal and kosher foods are similar in that both exclude pork and mandate a specific way in which an animal is to be killed. Kosher laws also dictate how food is cooked.

At the time, the state cited cost and fairness as reasons for ending the program.

Florida prisoners have vegetarian options for most meals, and they also can request vegan meals, which are free of any animal products. The prison system also offers dietary options that address a variety of medical concerns, according to the lawsuit.

Since 2010, kosher meals have been provided for about a dozen prisoners in a pilot program at one South Florida correctional facility. Only prisoners who are at least 59 years old or eligible for assignment to a work squad and have religious reasons for keeping kosher are eligible for the program.

The state spends about $4.70 a day to provide kosher meals to prisoners in the program, according to the lawsuit.

Federal officials say that program shows that the state can provide kosher meals. The U.S. Bureau of Prisons and most other state prison systems offer kosher meals, according to the lawsuit.

Florida has roughly 100,000 inmates.

The lawsuit cites complaints from 10 state prisoners who say they must violate their religious beliefs in order to eat. One participated in the previous kosher meal program but has not been accepted for the current pilot program.

The state corrections department told another Jewish prisoner that its vegetarian meal option "allows the majority of religious groups ... to meet the basic tenets of their belief systems," according to the lawsuit.

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