Monday, May 2, 2016

What's for Dinner?

     When a person becomes incarcerated, they lose some rights that citizens of the U.S have a right to. The issue is how many rights does a person give up while in the penitentiary system. Quincy Sims, an inmate at Centinela State Prison in California, sued multiple employees of the prison for what he believed to be a violation of his religious freedom. In 2013, Mr. Sims requested that inmates who were of the Islamic faith be able to be served the Jewish kosher meals. Sims was denied the request, with the prison stating that he did not meet the requirements for a Jewish kosher diet, but Sims argued that the foods that Jewish and Islamic peoples can eat are similar and the denial of him being served the meal was a violation of his religious rights. The court dismissed his complaint originally, but allowed him to submit a revised complaint which was recently allowed to move forward in the legal process by a separate judge. 
     The main issue that arises here stems from the Equal Protection Clause which says that no state can deny any person equal protection of its laws in the state’s jurisdiction. By not being allowed the Jewish Kosher meals, Sims saw that clause as being violated in that he was not being given the same opportunities to practice his faith as other inmates. This case also wrestles with the issue of The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) which disallows the government from putting a substantial burden on the religious practices of people living or confined to institutions unless the government can show a compelling state interest and is the least restrictive version of that interest. The court was not convinced by the evidence that Sims gave that his religious practices were being burdened by him not being allowed the Jewish Kosher diet when he was a muslim and was of the opinion that there was a state interest in not allowing Sims to receive the different diet based on what effect the approval of the diet would have upon guards and other inmates. 
     Determining what an incarcerated person does and does not have the freedom to do can be difficult because the penitentiary system of the United States is supposed to rehabilitate prisoners, not just imprison them. Being that the majority of people within the United States are some type of religious practitioners, religious practices are supported inside of the prison system, as shown in this case by the existence of separate meals based upon religious restriction. As with teachers endorsing religion in public schools, there is a belief versus action rule that comes into play. A public school teacher is allowed to personally believe whatever they wish to believe, but they, as government employees, are not allowed to endorse or support one religion over another. Obviously public school teachers are not prisoners (though maybe some would beg to differ), but they are restricted in their actions. Similarly, prisoners have the right to believe whatever they wish but the prison does not have to grant them the right to act upon it if there is a clear secular interest in not allowing it. 

     I do not believe that Sims has a legally valid complaint in not being allowed a different diet. He did not offer any reason why he needed to be supplied a Jewish Kosher diet beyond saying that the diet restrictions in the religions were similar. The prison had restrictions in place that determined which prisoners could receive which meals, restrictions which had been approved and Sims, as a Muslim, did not meet the criteria to receive the kosher diet. If Sims had given evidence that the Jewish Kosher meals better represented the restrictions of his own religion rather than the Islamic meals he received than I would be inclined to side with him. Sims was being given the same right to practice his religion as other inmates and the Jewish inmates were not being established over him by receiving kosher meals because those were the meals that followed their religious guidelines. Sims does not have a right to Jewish Kosher meals just because he wants it, and a burden would also have been placed on the prison by having to prepare a separate meal plan for Sims than he had been receiving. 


Jim R said...

I agree with Tom's assessment of the case. The prison staff was trying to accommodate to Quincy's preferred cuisine by offering him meals prepared for a Muslim diet. The staff tries to perform this same service to all of the other prisoners under the Free Exercise Clause. As Tom mentioned, if he were to be shown favoritism by the guards, other prisoners may demand that their meals be swapped for another method, which would only slow down the productivity of the prison. While food is not as binding of a doctrine as prayer, a person should not be coerced to believe in something they do not wish to partake in.

Liz S. said...

I am a bit confused with the details of this case- Was there a kosher option for Jewish people and a non-kosher meal for everyone else? If so, I think Quincy has a valid point. Muslim people have strict diets just as Jewish people do. For example, people practicing islam cannot eat pork. Thus, if Quincy is only being offered the non-kosher food plan when the kosher food plan would satisfy the dietary rules of Islam, Quincy certainly should be able to be offered the non-kosher meal. If not, then the prison should at least offer a meal plan for Muslim people. Religions are being treated differently; it is unfair that Jewish people get a meal plan to allow them to follow religious rules but Muslim people do not. However, if, as Jim's comment seems to suggest, Quincy is being given a meal plan fitting for a Muslim diet, then I agree that him asking to have the kosher meal plan is unreasonable and not a restriction on his freedom of religion.

Caroline S. said...

I agree with Tom and Jim here- Quincy has received meals that have been specially prepared to accommodate a Muslim diet. I don't think that Quincy deserved any more special treatment here. I think that giving Quincy any more special treatment would be in violation of the Establishment Clause, because Muslim inmates would be receiving special treatment over all other inmates of various religious sects. I think that if the Muslim food is not in accordance with muslim doctrine, that would pose a separate issue, however this does not seem to be the case. It is unfortunate that Quincy does not like the Muslim food in the prison, but the prison staff has not violate his right to Free Exercise.

Matthew L. said...

I believe you did a great job of explaining this issue. Furthermore, I believe that the reasoning that you based your decision upon was also well thought out. The burden in this case rests on the petitioner who is trying to prove why he should be given the special accommodations. In this case, I do not believe that the petitioner, Quincy, presented enough evidence why the prison should make an accommodation for him to be put on the kosher diet.

Sara G. said...

I agree with what everyone else is saying here. Because he was already receiving meals to fit his religious needs there is no reason to switch him over to kosher. If the prison could not reasonably provide him with a meal to fit his specific needs and the kosher meals were close enough for him, then he should absolutely be given the kosher meal, but this is not the case. The only way he could start receiving the kosher meal is if he converted to Judaism, but as it stands he, like everyone else, cannot just switch diets because they want to. He seemed to have no particular issue with the diet he was already on, if the food they were providing him was not up to his religious standards then the diet should be modified or if it could not be, then he could qualify to go kosher, but because his already special diet seemed to be fitting his needs, he doesn't have the right to switch to kosher on a whim.