MIAMI (AP) - Despite Florida's recent change of policy, a federal appeals court Tuesday reinstated a lawsuit filed by a Jewish prison inmate who claimed his rights were violated by the state Department of Corrections' previous refusal to serve kosher meals.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a lower federal judge to reconsider the lawsuit filed in 2010 by Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jew who is serving a life sentence at Union Correctional Institution. The judge previously dismissed the lawsuit at the state's request, citing lack of evidence.
Florida announced earlier this year it would resume offering kosher meals statewide by September to prisoners who qualify. The appeals judges, however, determined that Rich deserved a new hearing on his lawsuit despite the policy change.
"There is nothing to suggest that Florida will not simply end the new kosher meal program at some point in the future, just as it did in 2007," they wrote. The judges also noted that the policy was changed just two weeks before oral arguments were held in Rich's appeal and initially affected only his prison.
The ruling comes as a federal judge in Miami is considering a similar lawsuit filed by the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, which contends that the new prisons diet program should be overseen by court order. U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz has scheduled a June 4 hearing in that case.
State officials "continue to argue that they may deny a kosher diet to prisoners at any time," the federal lawyers wrote.
Department of Corrections spokeswoman Ann Howard declined comment Tuesday, citing the pending litigation.
In his lawsuit, Rich claimed that corrections officials violated his rights to practice his religion by refusing him kosher meals, which adhere to strict Jewish dietary rules. The prison system did offer such meals from 2004 to 2007, ending them because of costs and issues of security, according to court records.
The 11th Circuit found those reasons to be an "insubstantial" reason to dismiss Rich's case. His attorney, Luke Goodrich, said 35 states and the federal prison system do serve kosher diets without any problems.
"Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender the fundamental right of conscience," said Goodrich, who is deputy general counsel at the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. "Bureaucratic stubbornness should not prevent a handful of prisoners from peacefully following the centuries-old commands of Judaism."
Both cases involve a law passed in 2000 known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which protects prisoners' rights to free exercise of religion and also use of land for religious purposes. Goodrich said numerous other organizations filed briefs in support of Rich's appeal, including Jewish, Christian and Hindu groups.
In Rich's case, the appeals court said a lower federal judge should decide if the new Florida kosher diet policy could settle his claim.
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