Christian Groups Support Kosher for Jewish Prisoners in Fla. Court Case

The Christian Legal Society, National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Prison Fellowship have jointly filed an amicus curiae, or "friend of the court," brief in support of a prisoner who sued the Florida Department of Corrections for not serving kosher meals in accordance with the dietary restrictions of his Jewish faith.

"No sentence involves revoking a prisoner's constitutional right to religious freedom," Galen Carey, vice president of government relations for the NAE, told The Christian Post Tuesday.

The brief states that Florida prison officials failed to show a compelling interest, as is required under the Religious Land Use and Incarcerated Persons Act (RLUIPA), for denying Bruce Rich's request for kosher meals. Prison officials claim that the meals would be too costly and would jeopardize security.

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Rich, an Orthodox Jew, is represented by The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. Becket Fund filed an appeal on Aug. 1 in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit.

"Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience," Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, said in a statement. "Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a handful of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism."

RLUIPA was passed by Congress in 2000 under unanimous consent and signed by President Bill Clinton. It prohibits prisons that accept funds from the federal government from placing a "substantial burden" on a prisoner's religious exercise unless it can show, under "strict scrutiny," a compelling interest for doing so and is using the least restrictive means possible to further that interest.

The Christian Legal Society, NAE and Prison Fellowship all played a role in the drafting of and advocacy for RLUIPA, the brief notes.

RLUIPA, the brief states, "is under attack by various state agencies which, under the banner of conclusory security concerns, seek to narrow (or dispense with altogether) RLUIPA's free exercise safeguards. Respect for the language of the statute, respect for the legislative intent, and an appropriate concern for religious rights -- even those of prisoners -- all require that this Court reject that invitation and apply the statute with the full force intended by Congress."

The American Civil Liberties Union and The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida have also filed an amicus brief on behalf of Rich, stating, "The State's refusal to provide Jewish inmates with an appropriate religious diet runs afoul of RLUIPA, which requires courts to apply strict scrutiny to correctional polices that substantially burden prisoners' religious exercise."

When asked why an evangelical organization would get involved in this case, Carey responded, "We're concerned with religious freedom for all people, whatever their beliefs. People have a God-given right to believe as their conscience dictates."

NAE also believes it's important for the courts to uphold the "strict scrutiny" standard, Carey added. Strict scrutiny means that the burden is upon the government, rather than religious adherents, to show it has a compelling interest to restrict someone's religious liberty.

"If the standard were lowered in this case, it would affect not only this case but other religious freedom cases, not just in prisons, but in any context," Carey said.

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