Michigan's Jewish prisoners must get kosher food, cheesecake on Shavuot - court

The Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the Michigan Department of Corrections's policy of giving vegan meals for religious diets was insufficient and a burden on their religious beliefs.

Prison cell block (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Prison cell block
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Jewish inmates in Michigan prisons are entitled to receiving kosher food as well as cheesecake for Shavuot, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last week.

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

The ruling was the result of the legal efforts of Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin, Jewish prisoners in Michigan who keep kosher. In a legal battle spanning several years, the two prisoners, representing a class-action suit on behalf of all Jewish prisoners within MDOC, argued that their religious beliefs obligated them to eat meals with kosher meat and kosher dairy on Shabbat and on Jewish holidays, specifically noting that they must eat cheesecake on Shavuot. 

As MDOC only allowed for vegan meals, they claimed that forcing "them to eat vegan meals on these days substantially burden their sincere religious beliefs." This, they further argued, was a violation of MDOC's obligation to accommodate their religious beliefs under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). 

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

 RICH CHEESECAKE MOUSSE  (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN) RICH CHEESECAKE MOUSSE (credit: PASCALE PEREZ-RUBIN)

MDOC had fought these claims, stating that the prisoners "did not sincerely believe that they needed to eat kosher meat."

The prisoners came to the district court armed with the affidavit of a rabbi, who stated that “[a]ccording 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 upheld the fact that the prisoners were sincere in their religious beliefs regarding kashrut and cheesecake, the latter of which was referred to by the rabbi as customary.

The prisoners both grew up keeping kosher and cited portions in the Shulchan Aruch regarding the food needed to be eaten on these holidays, and further argued that being deprived of these foods (including customary ones) "diminishes from the fullness of the holiday."

The issue of cheesecake, in particular, was a confusing point in the trial, 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 cheesecake is not mandatory and that in theory, anything dairy such as a glass of milk would be fine. However, Shaykin noted that despite not being strictly required, cheesecake on Shavuot would "fulfill [his] religious beliefs in a better way."

Ackerman further elaborated that though the Shulchan Aruch does not specifically mention cheesecake, he said that a passage referencing eating "some dairy mezonot, cake and beverage" was understood by him to mean requiring cheesecake.

Also at issue though was the fact that prisoners could still buy non-vegan kosher options such as mac and cheese or beef sticks with prices ranging from $0.95 to $4.42 at the commissary twice a month. This money can be sourced from prison job wages or money sent to their prison accounts by friends and family, or it could be loaned by the prison itself should their account balance be under $11. But Ackerman and Shaykin refused to spend their money this way, and instead purchase hygiene products and coffee, both spending considerable sums.

At the trial, though, the two pointed out that this was irrelevant since the kosher food are snack-sized and the Shulchan Aruch specifies "meals."

Also at issue is cost for the prisons. According to testimony from  MDOC's foodservice management and support director, giving one kosher piece of turkey for one meal on the days specified would cost MDOC $10,000 annually, from their budget of $39 million.

After the district court ruled in their favor, MDOC appealed and the case went to the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, who rejected MDOC's lack-of-sincerity argument. It further argued that the option to buy from the commissary was insufficient, and that MDOC "substantially burdens" the exercising of their religious beliefs.

Further regarding this argument is that even though kosher food can be purchased from the commissary, regardless of the size of the food purchases, "MDOC fails to grapple with the elephant in the room — prison policies completely bar prisoners from eating any meat or dairy as part of their meals at mealtime."

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

Regarding the issue of cheesecake, though, was trickier, considering there was no evidence that the dish was halachically required. "But," the court noted, "there's also evidence suggesting that these prisoners do in fact sincerely believe that cheesecake is required on Shavuot." With this, they upheld the lower court's ruling.  

“Sixth Circuit rightly upheld the sincerely held religious beliefs of incarcerated persons,” Thomas Rheaume, the prisoners' attorney, said in a statement, according to Courthouse News Service

“The decision paves the way for a class of Jewish prisoners to eat religious meals in accordance with the precepts of their religion as opposed to non-conforming religious meals deemed sufficient by the state. The accommodation of religion upheld today by the Sixth Circuit is consistent with RLUIPA’s purpose and should be lauded.”