ACLU Sues DC Dept. of Corrections Over Inmate Policy on Kosher Meals

August 21, 2023 by Tom Ramstack
ACLU Sues DC Dept. of Corrections Over Inmate Policy on Kosher Meals
A jail at mid day. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — The American Civil Liberties Union is suing the District of Columbia Department of Corrections for failing to offer kosher meals on request from Jewish inmates.

The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Riley Benjamin, who has been in Department of Corrections custody for the past year while he awaits trial on a second-degree murder charge.

The lawsuit says Benjamin submitted multiple requests on a special form for kosher meals but they were denied in Sept. 27 and Dec. 28 notifications from the jail.

The denial letters signed by Deputy Director Jacqueline Williams included a statement of Department of Corrections policy that requires verification of religious denomination affiliation before inmates can be provided with religious diets.

The external verification policy requires a synagogue, rabbi or a letter of conversion to verify an inmate’s Jewish faith affiliation before the jail must offer dietary accommodation.

The ACLU of D.C.’s complaint in U.S. District Court says the policy places an excessive and undue burden on Jewish inmates that infringes on their religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In Benjamin’s case, the verification is unnecessary because he already was listed in the jail’s case management system as Jewish, the lawsuit says. In addition, his girlfriend attested to his conversion and Jewish faith. 

The ACLU also said Jewish inmates are treated differently than others.

“The lawsuit alleges that Christian or Muslim individuals are not required to provide external verification of their faith to receive religious accommodations,” the ACLU said in a press release.

The lawsuit is filed as a class action that seeks a court order to prohibit the jail from imposing on Jewish inmates an external verification requirement as a condition for kosher meals.

“My Jewish faith is one of the few things that has sustained me during this tough time in my life while I’ve been locked up,” Benjamin said in a statement. “It’s discriminatory and wrong for Reverend [Nicole] Colbert and Chaplain [Jimmie] Allen, who are people of faith themselves, to deny me the opportunity to keep kosher by imposing proof requirements that don’t apply to people of other religions.”

Federal courts and statutes that support religious accommodations for inmates are based on the religious freedom provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The need for accommodation also is found in the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000. 

Correctional institutions can override the religious accommodation provisions only if they are unreasonable or represent a health or safety risk. Carrying a religious object that could be used as a weapon is an example.

Prison officials who are unable to demonstrate a “compelling” reason to deprive prisoners of their religious requests must make accommodations, according to federal court rulings.

In one case that tested the laws, a Muslim woman successfully sued in 2011 when she was forced to remove her headscarf in front of men she did not know in a Los Angeles, California, jail. She was on probation after a misdemeanor conviction.

In a 2022 case, a male Muslim prisoner in Green Bay, Wisconsin, won a claim that his religious freedom rights were violated when he was strip searched by a transgender male guard.

In the pending Washington, D.C., case, Laura Follansbee, counsel for Benjamin, said the external verification requirement “violates federal law and ignores the deeply personal nature of faith and spirituality.” 

The case is Benjamin v. Colbert, filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on Aug. 10, 2023.

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