BOSTON — The state's highest court has ruled that the state prison system has failed to justify denying a Muslim inmate special feast-day meats, such as oxen and camel.
In a unanimous April 7 ruling, the Supreme Judicial Court said officials at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center had failed to show why providing the proper meats to Rashad Rasheed on certain holidays was a burden.
The decision reversed a Superior Court judge who dismissed Rasheed's claim without a trial. The case now goes back to Superior Court for review.
The SJC ruling noted that the Massachusetts Constitution goes further than the U.S. Constitution to protect the religious freedom of prisoners, The Boston Globe reported.
Justice Robert Cordy, writing for the court, said the state constitution is "more protective of the religious freedoms of prisoners than the United States Constitution, and ... the proper standard of review to be applied to the infringement of such freedoms is consequently more demanding."
Rasheed, a practicing member of the Nation of Islam, has been serving a life sentence since 1975. A Department of Correction spokeswoman, Diane Wiffin, would not disclose why Rasheed was in prison and his lawyer, Neil McGaraghan, said he didn't know why.
Rasheed sued in 2000 after the state signed a contract with a new food vendor that began providing lamb and fish to Muslim prisoners on two Islamic holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha. Rasheed said the meals were inappropriate.
On the first holiday, which marks the end of Ramadan, Rasheed's faith requires that he eat the meat of cows, oxen or camels. On the second holiday, which celebrates the pilgrimage to Mecca, he is required to eat specially slaughtered cattle.
McGaraghan applauded the ruling, saying it was the first time the SJC has said that inmates are entitled to the same religious protections as free people in Massachusetts.
"It recognizes the long history of the importance of religion in the Commonwealth," he said. "Dating back hundreds of years, religion has been recognized to be one of those core fundamental rights worth enshrining in the Declaration of Rights and specifically extended to inmates."
Wiffin said the state was pleased the court upheld other steps they had taken to balance inmates' religious freedom with security concerns.
Rasheed's claim charged prison officials with violating his right to practice his Muslim faith in a variety of ways, including limiting the meals, forbidding him from using a bulky prayer rug and restricting him to an ounce of scented prayer oil every three months.
Prison officials said the restrictions were needed for security, arguing that excess scented prayer oil, for example, can be used to mask the smell of marijuana smoke. Bulky prayer rugs can be used to hide contraband, they said.
The SJC agreed that Superior Court Judge Janet Sanders rightly had dismissed those claims.
Wiffin said that about 560 of the state's 10,500 inmates identify themselves as Muslim.