Sunday, September 29, 2013

United States Penitentiaries, where religious freedom is in question and fish isn’t meat.


Meet Howard Cosby. Cosby is a 35-year-old man currently being housed in a facility in Uncasville, Connecticut that is refusing to provide him with vegetarian meals that would allow him to abide by his Buddhist lifestyle of nonviolence. Sounds like a simple denial of religious freedom, right? Did I mention that the aforementioned “facility” is a prison? And he is there due to no small crimes.
Howard Cosby is currently serving a 19 ½ year sentence that began in 2004 at the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution due to charges of sexual assault and “other crimes”. While at the prison, despite wishing to eat a vegetarian diet due to religious reasons, he was given fish 3 times a week. Cosby complained to the administration, to which they replied that the department does not consider fish to be meat, therefore his diet is indeed vegetarian! Cosby then proceeded to pen a letter to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) detailing his experience. PETA then wrote a letter to the warden, Scott Erfe, asking that fish be removed from his diet, citing the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. This act, which was passed in 2000, requires that prisons “avoid imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ religious exercises”. In addition, the prison’s directives require that an inmate’s diet meet certain nutritional requirements and not contain “food items forbidden by religious dogma.”
            The question as to whether fish is meat or not is something I cannot nor will attempt to answer. While answering this question will allow us to determine whether the prison’s actions clearly violate their own directives, it is ultimately a red herring, as there are other issues to consider when trying deciding if the prison should accommodate his religious practice. One such issue is something that has been mentioned in prior Supreme Court cases that we have covered, and that is the issue of sincerity. In past Supreme Court cases, United States v. Seeger and United States vs Ballard for example, the Supreme Court was not interested in assessing the merit of the belief. Rather, they only wished to assess whether the belief was sincerely held. Assessing sincerity is important, for if someone claiming to be denied religious freedom is deemed insincere, then their entire argument falls apart. Cosby’s sincerity can definitely be brought into question in this case. Cosby claims that he wishes to maintain a vegetarian diet as part of the “Buddhist lifestyle of non-violence”, yet he is in jail for sexual assault, a violent crime, and has enlisted help from PETA, an organization with a history of violence. Therefore, it seems as though the “Buddhist lifestyle of non-violence” may be of little interest to him, and that his religious validation may be a false pretense, and he is more interested in animal rights than in non-violence. However, while I do think that it is sometimes necessary to assess the sincerity of one’s religious belief, as difficult as it may be, I feel it is a “slippery slope” and that it could quickly devolve into incessant poking of holes into peoples past conduct. A question I thus have is to what degree is it ok to question someone else’s religious sincerity?

            Another issue that needs to be considered is one of safety. If the prison were to provide him a vegetarian diet, it could potentially single Cosby out, as the other inmates could view this as preferential treatment, something they may not appreciate. A visible pacifist may not be safe in a prison environment, which could therefore lead to fights that put both the staff at the prison and the inmates, including Cosby himself, in danger. Therefore, providing him with vegetarian food could pose a serious safety hazard to everyone who is at the prison.

            Whether or not this is a violation of the Federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons act is a matter of perspective, as it depends on what constitutes “substantial burdens on inmates’ religious exercises”.  Due to these issues, I do not think that Cosby is entitled to a vegetarian diet. While denying a vegetarian meal to someone practicing a non-violent Buddhist lifestyle may be a violation of the First Amendment in itself, if Cosby does not truly have the religious beliefs in the first place, then it is a moot point. In addition, even if Cosby was thought to be sincere in his beliefs, providing him with a vegetarian meal could potentially put many people, including him, in danger. While it would be nice to provide him with vegetarian meals so he can freely practice his supposed religion, I feel that there are too many risks involved with letting that happen.

            What do you all think? Is Cosby sincere? Does it matter if he is sincere? Is my assessment of prisoner politics correct? Is fish meat? Please share your thoughts.

8 comments:

Nicole D said...

I am going to have to disagree. I do not see providing him a vegetarian meal to be anything dangerous enough to deny him that religious right. While fish may be included in an inmates diet if they claim to be a vegetarian for different reasons, if it conflicts with his religious ideas, an exception should be made. There is no compelling state interest to make this man eat fish. I reject the idea that his eating a different meal would directly lead to violence. I think in a prison situation many actions may cause a person to be looked unfavorably upon, and if he is not worried about this for himself, I do not find that to be a strong enough reason to impose on his religious freedom.

Sayeh B said...

I completely agree with SC's opinion. First off, I believe that when a person commits a crime - and in this case, a very violent one (despite believing in a non-violent religion) - and is put in jail, he gives up his regular rights guaranteed to him as a free person. That said, I agree with the fact that singling this man out and accommodating his religious beliefs could cause a problem within the prison. Additionally, I think the sincerity argument is important to consider here. While it is not up to the Court to determine whether a person believes in a "legitimate" religion, it has been shown in previous cases that is their job to determine if someone truly believes in their particular religion. It's a little harder for me to make a decision about that in this particular case, because it's difficult to tell when this man became a Buddhist, why he did, and how long before he was in/how far into his sentence was he before he "converted." In any case though, I do not believe this man has the right to be accommodated because once he committed those crimes, he gave up his regular rights/freedoms.

Gabby D. said...

I agree with Nicole on this issue. Although it may sometimes be moral to think along the same lines as Sayeh and say that prisoners lose "regular rights" that is not entirely the case. Although these inmates are criminals, and in this case have committed serious crimes, they are still human and still have their rights. the main rights that convicted felons forever lose are: the right to vote, the right to bear arms, the right to run for or hold office, the right to serve on jury duty (not really a huge loss if you ask me), and the right to travel outside the US. Therefore, prisoners still have the right to religious freedom, however this right can be easily ignored especially in federal institutions because communication with the outside world is limited.

SC does make a compelling argument in saying that this prisoners sincerity could be questioned due to his violent charges. However, I do not think a discrepancy in his past actions should totally nullify his sincerity. He made some mistakes, but I think it is clear that this is something that is very important to him. It is hard to send mail in and out of jails as the prisoners often have to trade things to get stamps, and the fact that this prisoner got support from PETA via mail is not a small feat. If he were requesting a religious exemption for something possibly violent (as in the case with the Fort Hood shooter when he could possibly hide things in his beard) that would be a different case. However he is just asking for substitutes for fish to have a vegetarian meal. Is that so hard to comply with??

Maggie S. said...

As for SC's comment of "does it matter if he's sincere?" I would argue, no, not at all. Many of the cases we have been dealing with recently touch on the issue of sincerity and I don't think it's anyone's job--especially the prison--to determine his sincerity of belief. What is the baseline for sincerity? I have been a vegetarian for almost two years, and have recently been eating vegan. If someone forced me to eat an egg and justified it by saying veganism is too new to my lifestyle to be considered sincere I would completely disagree. Just as the woman who only recently started covering her whole face wanted to remain veiled in court--the test of sincerity in relation to time and circumstance seems rather weak. Further, the question "is fish meat?" for a vegetarian would be a resounding, yes. There is such a thing as a "pescetarian" which would include fish as an acceptable thing to eat. I understand that beggars can't be choosers and not everyone in prison can just claim not to "like" meat, but what about those with allergies or an intolerance? I agree with Nicole that there is no compelling state issue for him to eat fish just like there is no compelling state interest to force a lactose intolerant inmate to drink milk. Regardless of his reasoning, I think he should be allowed to follow whatever dietary restrictions he may have. The fact that they are rejecting it on the basis of his religious belief and questioning his sincerity makes it even worse.

Mike Spear said...

I feel that this particular inmate deserves to exercise his religious freedom. In this case, being a strict vegetarian would be one way of exercising his freedom. The state has no right to deny him his first amendment rights and should be obligated to provide him with a diet that will accommodate his Buddhist beliefs. The state should not be able to argue that his violent past proves that he is insincere. This man has devoted his life (whether it was 50 years ago or 50 minutes) to Buddhism (a REAL religion) and it is the prison's responsibility to be understanding and accommodating. I also feel that stripping inmates of their constitutional rights will prove to be a much more slippery slope then allowing him to eat vegetables.

Kaela Diomede said...

I think that this is a bit of a slippery slope situation, in a sense that if the religious needs for one person are granted, does this open an door for other religious requests from inmates all over the country? I think that it is a bit unclear what the constitutional religious rights of a prisoner are. I do think however, that asking for vegetarian options a few times a week is not that ridiculous of a request. If the vegetarian option was offered to all inmates, then it would be less of an issue regarding prioritizing religion over religion, or even dealing with the constitutional rights of a prisoner, but rather would offer a healthy alternative (and solve the religious conflict at hand).

Tyler J said...

As I was reading this, I at first thought there should be no reason not to provide him with a non-fish meal. However, when I learned that some of his past crimes were sexual assaults - a very violent crime - I immediately changed my mind. It seems very much as though these religious convictions appeared out of nowhere. As to judging his religious sincerity, I don't believe the court has a right to do so. As Maggie pointed out, we have been dealing with many cases related to this issue, and I too feel that it is not the prison's, nor the court's right to judge that.
I agree with Nicole on the issue of his preferential treatment leading to violence. I understand how that may be a concern, but quite frankly if that situation were to occur, you could test if Cosby truly disbelieved in violence.

Benjamin S said...

I agree with Maggie. Testing someone’s sincerity is not up to the prison. One’s own conscience cannot be questioned. Now I do realize that this man has committed violent crimes, but the point of the prison system is to reform criminals. If Cosby has adapted to a non-violent Buddhist philosophy that holds in its belief a vegetarian diet then the prison should honor that. Also I believe the nature of the request should be taken into account. A vegetarian diet isn’t going to promote violence or create any danger. If it would, then yes. Deny it. But as it stands, withholding the strictly vegetarian diet from Cosby is a violation of his first amendment rights under the free exercise clause.