The United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit confirmed a trial court’s decision in favor of Michigan inmates who wanted a kosher dinner with meat and dairy on the Jewish Sabbath and four major Jewish festivals, as well as cheesecake on the Shavuot holiday, on October 12, 2021. Following an examination by the federal Department of Justice, the state Department of Corrections (DOC) consented to these and other revisions to its policy concerning religious activity.
The Court’s decision came in response to an appeal filed by prisoners Gerald Ackerman and Mark R. Shaykin, who were the representatives in a class-action lawsuit alleging that the Department of Corrections (DOC) forces prisoners to eat a vegan meal on the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, thereby substantially burdening their sincere religious beliefs.
Jewish Holidays were allowed in the past
DOC used to serve kosher meat and dairy dinners, as well as allow philanthropic Jewish groups to bring in traditional religious dishes on holidays. However, in 2013, the agency introduced a universal vegan meal for all convicts who meet the religious diet requirements. It also put an end to the practice of taking holiday donations from Jewish groups.
On the Jewish Sabbath and four Jewish festivals, Ackerman and Shaykin stated that their religious principles obliged them to have a meal containing meat and dairy products: Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shavuot. They further claimed that cheesecake is a typical dairy food for the Shavuot festival.
The meat and dairy case was tried in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan, which issued a bench ruling in favor of the inmates and a class of other DOC inmates who were similarly situated, with Daniel E. Manville of Ferndale serving as class counsel. The Court ordered DOC to offer kosher meat and dairy products “of a quantity comparable to the meat and dairy products served to all other prisoners” on the requested days, concluding that DOC’s restrictions severely burden their sincere religious convictions. Shavout was also when the plaintiffs got their kosher cheesecake.
The Department of Corrections filed an appeal. The judges in the Sixth Circuit, where Detroit appellate attorney Thomas J. Rheaume, Jr. joined Manville in representing the prisoners, rejected the plaintiffs’ claim of lack of sincerity, finding it supported by the prisoners’ own testimony, the Code of Jewish Law, and a post-trial affidavit from a rabbi.
The Court likewise agreed with the lower court that the convicts’ failure to spend their money on the missing products in the commissary had no bearing on their sincerity. Furthermore, the DOC forbids inmates from bringing commissary foods into the chow hall, despite the fact that the Code of Jewish Law mandates “meat during the meal,” not as snacks or post-meal supplements, as the inmates testified. “Ackerman and Shaykin’s failure to buy meat and dairy products at the commissary does not undermine the sincerity of their belief here,” the Court held, because DOC protocol prohibits them from doing so.
The district court “reached the defensible conclusion that it should credit the prisoners’ testimony that cheesecake is mandatory on Shavuot.” In confirming the decision, the Sixth Circuit said, “That’s all that’s required.”
The Court also dismissed DOC’s claim that not delivering the requested food products would save it $10,000 in annual expenditures. The Court further stated that RLUIPA “may require a government to incur expenses in its own operations to avoid imposing a substantial burden on religious exercise,” despite the fact that this is a “tiny drop” representing 0.02 percent of DOC’s $39 million food budget. See 42 U.S.C. 2000cc-3 for further information (c).
As a result, the district court’s decision in favor of the plaintiffs was upheld. 16 F.4th 170 (Ackerman v. Washington) (6th Cir. 2021).