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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
In a ruling favorable to an inmate belonging to the Black Hebrews sect who sued after a prison denied his request for kosher meals, a federal appeals court upheld a federal law that protects the religious rights of incarcerated people.
The state of Virginia had challenged the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act after inmate Ira Madison complained in a 2001 lawsuit that prison officials were violating the act by denying him a kosher diet.
Virginia argued that Congress had exceeded its authority by tying compliance with the act to federal funding for prisons.
But the appellate judges rejected that argument, saying the law does not force states to change prison policies.
"Because Virginia voluntarily accepted federal correctional funds, it cannot avoid the substantive requirements of RLUIPA," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote Friday.
The law, enacted in 2000, blocks any government from passing a land use regulation - such as a zoning law - that would discriminate against a religious organization. It also prohibits prisons from blocking prisoners from worshipping as they please.
The Virginia Department of Corrections declined to comment on the appellate court ruling, saying that Madison's lawsuit is still being litigated. A spokesman also declined to say whether Madison will be provided kosher meals.
Madison professes to be a Black Hebrew, a denomination of black Americans who regard themselves as the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. He was serving time at the Buckingham Correctional for cocaine possession at the time he filed his lawsuit.
Prison officials contend that non-pork, vegetarian prison menus were an adequate alternative to kosher meals. Department officials also question Madison's religious sincerity, Friday's ruling stated.