RICHMOND, Va. — In a ruling favorable to an inmate who sued after a Virginia prison denied his request for kosher meals, a federal appeals court has upheld a federal law that protects the religious rights of incarcerated people.
The state of Virginia had challenged the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act after inmate Ira Madison complained in a 2001 lawsuit that prison officials were violating the act by denying him a kosher diet.
Virginia argued that Congress had exceeded its authority by tying compliance with the act to federal funding for prisons.
But the appellate judges rejected that argument, saying the law did not force states to change prison policies.
"Because Virginia voluntarily accepted federal correctional funds, it cannot avoid the substantive requirements of RLUIPA," Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson III wrote in the Dec. 29 ruling Madison v. Virginia.
RLUIPA, enacted in 2000, blocks any government from passing a land-use regulation — such as a zoning law — that would discriminate against a religious organization. It also prohibits prisons from blocking prisoners from worshipping as they please.
The Virginia Department of Corrections declined to comment on the appellate court ruling, saying that Madison's lawsuit was still being litigated. A spokesman also declined to say whether Madison would be provided kosher meals.
Madison professes to be a Hebrew Israelite, a denomination of black Americans who regard themselves as the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah. He was serving time at Buckingham Correctional for cocaine possession at the time he filed his lawsuit.
Prison officials contend that non-pork, vegetarian prison menus were an adequate alternative to kosher meals. Department officials also question Madison's religious sincerity, the Dec. 29 ruling stated.
Virginia has tried twice to use the Madison case to overturn the law.
Before the most recent challenge, the state in 2003 argued that RLUIPA violated the First Amendment's mandate for separation of church and state. The 4th Circuit disagreed.
Ohio and Georgia have also tried to overturn the law, said Anthony Picarello, general counsel for the Washington-based Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a legal brief in the case in support of the law.
"It seems like the states haven't gotten the message," he said. "Anytime that anyone has tried to challenge RLUIPA, they have ultimately failed."