Michigan Jewish prisoners must get kosher food, cheesecake – court


Jewish inmates in Michigan prisons entitled to kosher food plus cheesecake for Shavuot, Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Last week.

The decision, written by United States Circuit Court Judge Baylor Nalbandian, noted that the policy put in place by the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) that simply provides a vegan meal for religious diets was insufficient.

The decision is the result of the legal efforts of Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, Jewish prisoners in Michigan who keep kosher. In a multi-year legal battle, the two prisoners, representing a class action lawsuit on behalf of all Jewish prisoners within the MDOC, argued that their religious beliefs required them to eat meals with kosher meat and kosher dairy products on Shabbat and Jewish holidays, noting specifically that they must eat cheesecake on Shavuot.

Since the MDOC only allowed vegan meals, they claimed that forcing them “to eat vegan meals on these days weighs heavily on their sincere religious beliefs.” This, they added, was a violation of the MDOC’s obligation to take into account their religious beliefs under the Religious Use of Land and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

In the past, the MDOC had given prisoners kosher meat and dairy meals, with Jewish organizations allowed to bring traditional religious dishes for the relevant holidays, but both of these activities ceased in 2013 and the new policy was put. in place.


The MDOC had combated these allegations, saying that the prisoners “did not sincerely believe that they needed to eat kosher meat”.

The prisoners presented themselves to the district court armed with the affidavit of a rabbi, who stated that “[a]According to accepted Jewish ritual and custom, each Sabbath meal consists of fish, chicken or meat as well as “wine (or grape juice) and bread”.

The court confirmed that the prisoners were sincere in their religious beliefs regarding kashrut and cheesecake, the latter being described by the rabbi as customary.

The prisoners both grew up keeping kosher and cited portions in the Shulchan Aruch regarding what food to eat during these holidays, and further argued that being deprived of these foods (including the usual foods) “diminishes the fullness of the feast”.

The cheesecake issue, in particular, was a confusing point in the lawsuit, as the dish itself is customary, and even then the custom really only requires eating dairy, rather than specifically cheesecake. The prisoners themselves conceded this point, noting that the cheesecake is not mandatory and that in theory any dairy product such as a glass of milk would be fine. However, Shaykin noted that while it was not strictly required, the Shavuot Cheesecake “would fill up [his] religious beliefs in a better way. “

Ackerman further clarified that although the Shulchan Aruch does not specifically mention cheesecake, he stated that a passage referring to the consumption of “dairy mezonots, cakes and drinks” was understood by him to mean require a cheesecake.

However, the fact that prisoners could still purchase non-vegan kosher options such as mac and cheese or beef sticks at prices ranging from $ 0.95 to $ 4.42 at the commissioner was also in question twice a month. . This money can come from prison labor wages or money sent to their prison accounts by friends and family, or it could be loaned by the prison itself if their account balance is less than $ 11. But Ackerman and Shaykin refused to spend their money this way and instead bought toiletries and coffee, both spending considerable amounts of money.

During the trial, however, the two stressed that it didn’t matter since kosher food is the size of a snack and the Shulchan Aruch specifies “meal.”

The cost to prisons is also involved. According to the testimony of MDOC’s director of food service management and support, giving a piece of kosher turkey for a meal on specified days would cost the MDOC $ 10,000 per year out of its $ 39 million budget.

After the district court ruled in their favor, the MDOC appealed and the case went to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, which dismissed the MDOC’s insincerity argument. He further argued that the option to buy from the commissioner was insufficient and that the MDOC “significantly burdens” the exercise of their religious beliefs.

Further, regarding this argument, even though kosher food can be purchased at the police station, regardless of the size of the food purchases, “MDOC fails to tackle the elephant in the room – prison policies prohibit completely to prisoners to eat meat or dairy products as part of their meals at mealtime.

The ruling added, “Even if these prisoners spent every last penny on beef sticks and powdered milk, prison policy would still prohibit their religious exercise of eating these items as part of their meals.”

As for the cheesecake issue, however, this was trickier, given that there was no evidence that the dish was required under the halachia. “But,” the court noted, “there is also evidence to suggest that these prisoners genuinely believe that cheesecake is required on Shavuot.” With this, they confirmed the lower court’s decision.

“The Sixth Circuit has rightly maintained the sincere religious beliefs of those incarcerated,” Thomas Rheaume, the prisoners’ lawyer, said in a statement, according to Courthouse News Service.

“The ruling opens the way for a class of Jewish prisoners to eat religious meals in accordance with the precepts of their religion, as opposed to nonconforming religious meals deemed sufficient by the state. The accommodation of religion supported today by the Sixth Circuit is in line with RLUIPA’s goal and should be commended. “

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