DOC cannot make Muslim inmate pay for religious diet, divided 7th Circuit says

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Katie Stancombe for www.theindianalawyer.com

The Indiana Department of Correction must provide a Muslim inmate housed at the Indiana State Prison with a meat-based diet in accordance with his religious beliefs, a divided panel of the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Friday in a decision upholding a lower court.

The majority judges affirmed the Southern District Court opinion handed down in August 2017 in Roman Lee Jones v. Robert E. Carter, Jr., 17-2836.

The case centers around Roman Lee Jones, who is a member of a sect of Islam that requires a meat-based diet. Accordingly, Jones requested that ISP provide him with a halal diet, and initially the DOC offered certain inmates pre-packaged kosher meals that included meat.

While Jones conceded that eating this kosher diet would be acceptable to his religious practices, cost restrictions prompted DOC to begin serving certain inmates, including Jones, vegetarian kosher meals. However, certain inmates at facilities without kosher kitchens were still provided with meat-based, pre-packaged kosher trays.

When the Department of Correction refused Jones’ request for the kosher trays that included meat, he filed suit. Specifically, Jones argued that imposing the vegetarian diet on him when the pre-packaged, meat-based meals were still available was in violation of his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.

U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana Judge William T. Lawrence agreed with Jones, ruling that the prison’s refusal to serve Jones a meat-based diet was a violation of RLUIPA. The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ultimately agreed in a split Friday decision.

On appeal, DOC argued the district court erred in holding that Jones was substantially burdened by the vegetarian kosher diet when, according to the department, he could have purchased the halal meat he needs to supplement his diet at the prison commissary. DOC characterized Jones’ lack of meat as the result of “his own spending choices,” not as the result of DOC action.

But citing to Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S. Ct. 2751 (2014) – which addressed RLUIPA’s sister statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act – the majority judges found that making Jones pay “a few dollars a day” for his own halal meat would be too large an amount for a prisoner.

“He makes, at most, $8.40 per week at his prison job. Even though that amount is supplemented by sporadic funds sent from his friends and family, Jones cannot reliably afford to pay for the meat himself,” Chief Judge Diane Wood wrote for the majority joined by Judge Ilana Rovner. “The state is in effect demanding that Jones, uniquely among all inmates, zero out his account and forgo purchasing other items such as hygiene products or over-the-counter medicine, if he wants to avoid a diet that violates his religious beliefs.”

The majority noted the U.S. Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby chose not to require a demonstration of hardship or detailed findings on finances before determining that the fine at issue triggered protection for Hobby Lobby’s owners.

“Jones is entitled to no less,” Wood wrote. “He has testified to his meager sources of income, and the state has confirmed that the cost to Jones of subsidizing his own religiously compelled diet would systematically outpace his reliable income. That would be enough under Hobby Lobby for the Supreme Court, and thus it is enough for us.”

The majority further found that DOC’s argument that it should not have to “subsidize” or “underwrite” Jones’ religious diet failed because Jones is requesting only to receive the same kosher trays that DOC already provides to other inmates at facilities that do not have kosher kitchens.

However, Circuit Judge Michael B. Brennan dissented in a separate opinion, arguing the district court did not hear the necessary evidence on the expenses of prison life and “made no finding as to Jones’s financial circumstances.”

“The majority opinion states that unless the district court is affirmed, Jones will be forced to ‘give away his last dime’ to obtain halal meat,” Brennan wrote. “Were that true, the DOC’s policy may very well impose a substantial burden on Jones. But because the district court never made any findings of fact on this topic, Jones’s financial situation—and the severity of the burden commissary purchases place on him—is an unresolved fact dispute.”

Thus, Brennan argued that “(b)ecause halal meat options are readily available within the facility where Jones is housed, remand is warranted for further fact-finding on these questions.”

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