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Written by Don Byrd

This week, the 11th Circuit rejected Florida’s appeal of an injunction requiring the state to provide appropriate meals to inmates with a “sincere religious basis for keeping kosher.” Citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), which helps protect the religious exercise of inmates, the court found the state failed to meet its burden to demonstrate why the accommodation should not be granted.

Avoiding the additional cost to the state of providing the meals, the court emphasized, does not in itself establish a compelling government interest in denying the accommodation request. In addition, the state’s limited program offering kosher meals undermines the state’s argument that it has a vital interest in declining to offer kosher meals. Most importantly, the Secretary of Florida’s Department of Corrections failed to offer specific evidence justifying its claims.

Here is an excerpt from the opinion:

The evidence offered by the Secretary is insufficient . . .  She argues that the projected total cost for the meals is high, that the Department has a budget deficit, that she might have to eliminate 246 positions to pay for the meals, and that staff vacancies are high. But the Secretary offers no “concrete evidence concerning how other operations of the prison system would be affected by these increased costs,” and we do not have enough information about the deficit or the vacancies to conclude that they might make the asserted interest compelling.

The Secretary also argues that costs will increase if the Department provides kosher meals because other inmates will seek their own accommodations, but this argument is a nonstarter. “At bottom, this argument is but another formulation of the ‘classic rejoinder of bureaucrats throughout history: If I make an exception for you, I’ll have to make one for everybody, so no exceptions.’” The Supreme Court rejected this argument in Holt, and we do too.

See the Baptist Joint Committee’s resource page on RLUIPA. Also check out the BJC’s coverage of Holt v. Hobbs, the 2015 Supreme Court decision referenced in the 11th Circuit opinion.