Thursday, January 24, 2008
Court: Muslim Inmate’s Suit to Obtain Kosher Meal Can Proceed
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
A Muslim prison inmate’s suit alleging that the Arizona Department of Corrections violated his civil rights when it refused his request for kosher meals can proceed, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
Ruling that U.S. District Judge Paul G. Rosenblatt of the District of Arizona incorrectly focused on whether consuming Halal meat was required as a central tenet of Amin Rahman Shakur’s faith—rather than on whether Shakur sincerely believed that a kosher meal was consistent with Islam—the court held unanimously that the department was not entitled summary judgment because it had failed to study the impact of accommodating the request or the availability of ready alternatives.
Shakur, an inmate of a correctional facility in Florence, Ariz., sued the department in 2001 alleging that its practice of providing only vegetarian meals to Muslims—while providing kosher meals to Jews—violated his rights under the Free Exercise, Establishment and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Constitution, and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
Muslims are instructed to eat meat only if it is Halal, or ritually slaughtered and prepared according to Islamic specifications. The department deemed the costs of providing Muslim inmates with Halal meat to be prohibitively expensive, so it provided the inmates with a “lacto-vegetarian” diet, which included milk and eggs and did not include non-Halal meat.
Shakur objected to the vegetarian diet, claiming that it burden his exercise of his religion because it irritated his hiatal hernia and gave him gas that interfered with the state of “purity and cleanliness” needed for Muslim prayer. He requested that he be provided with the kosher meat provided to Jewish inmates which, according to him, would be consistent with Islamic Halal requirements and would provide him with an alternative protein source that would not cause any disruptive health problems.
The department denied Shakur’s requests, advising him that a kosher diet was not a requirement of his religion and pointing out that “the Department allows Muslim inmates the opportunity to request a vegetarian diet should they choose so as to avoid eating meat that is not Halal.”
Shakur filed a pro se civil rights complaint alleging that the denial violated his religious liberties, but Rosenblatt granted summary judgment in favor of the department on all of Shakur’s claims and dismissed the suit.
Sparse Factual Record
However, Judge Diarmuid F. O’Scannlain wrote for the Ninth Circuit that “the district court’s summary disposition of Shakur’s claims based on a sparse factual record warrants reversal,” and remanded the matter to the district court for further proceedings.
Examining Shakur’s free exercise claim, O’Scannlain disagreed with the district judge that Shakur needed to demonstrate that consuming Halal meat was required as a central tenet of his faith in order to show a substantial burden on his religious exercise, and said that any conclusion that the department’s actions were rationally related to legitimate interests of avoiding additional costs and administrative burden was premature where the department had not even studied the impact of accommodating Shakur’s request.
O’Scannlain also said that Rosenblatt’s conclusions that the department had not substantially burdened Shakur’s religious exercise under the RLUIPA and that its dietary regulations furthered a compelling state interest in the least restrictive manner were error where the burden that Shakur’s health problems placed on his religious exercise was disputed and the record relied lacked any competent evidence as to the additional cost or administrative burden of providing Halal or kosher meals to Muslim prisoners.
Turning to Shakur’s equal protection claim, O’Scannlain wrote that Rosenblatt had erred in focusing on Shakur’s status as a prisoner, rather than as a Muslim, and that summary judgment in favor of the department was again inappropriate because the record was not sufficiently developed as to cost justifications.
“[O]nly a careful analysis of a fully developed record can justify the burdening of an inmate’s religious rights,” he said.
O’Scannlain did not address Shakur’s claim that providing kosher meat meals to Jewish prisoners while denying Halal meat meals to Muslim inmates violated the Establishment Clause, ruling instead that Shakur waived the claim where he failed to raise the issue in opposition to the department’s motion for summary judgment.
Judges Michael Daly Hawkins and Kim McLane Wardlaw joined O’Scannlain in his opinion.
A spokesperson for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard indicated that the office was reviewing the opinion and had not comment at this time.
Representatives of the Stanford Constitutional Law Center, which represented Shakur in his appeal, could not be reached for comment.
The case is Shakur v. Schriro, No. 05-16705.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company