PHILADELPHIA Vegetarian prison food may not be the best, but state prisons in New Jersey aren't breaking the law by serving it to Muslim inmates who have asked for meals that conform with their religious standards, a federal appeals court has ruled.
Ruling in a case similar to dozens of others that have been filed around the country by prisoners, the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower court's finding that the state wasn't obligated to serve two Muslim inmates meals containing meat that was halal, or slaughtered in accordance with Islamic law.
Writing for a three-judge panel, Judge Dolores K. Sloviter sided with state officials, who said it would be too expensive to add halal meals to the prison menu. Prison authorities also said allowing prisoners to get meals prepared outside the prison would necessitate that each be passed through an X-ray machine for security reasons.
"Based on the record evidence, we agree with the district court that providing vegetarian meals, rather than halal meals with meat, is rationally related to the legitimate penological interests in simplified food service, security, and staying within the prison's budget," Sloviter wrote.
It is too early to know whether the ruling will be a blow to other Muslim inmates, who have argued with varying success in prison systems around the country that accommodating their dietary restrictions is mandated by the Constitution's guarantee of religious freedom.
Pennsylvania inmate Henry Williams filed suit after he was ordered to help prepare a pork meal while working in the kitchen at the Rockview state prison in 2001.
Williams, who says he is a devout Muslim, was disciplined when he refused. A review panel upheld his punishment, ruling that kitchen workers "are required to wear gloves and therefore do not 'touch' pork, technically."
Patrick Korten, a spokesman for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, called that a flagrant disregard of Williams' religious convictions.
"This is a classic case of prison officials who could easily accommodate his religious beliefs, but don't, for absolutely no reason at all," Korten said. "They don't have to have him work with pork. They can just have him do something else in the kitchen."
For prisoners, whether they can get halal meals depends largely on where they serve their time.
Federal prisons offer kosher, halal and vegetarian meals, and have created a process by which individual prisoners may apply for other dietary accommodations to fit their religious life. Muslim prisoners of war at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba are served halal meals.
Some states, though, have fiercely resisted requests by prisoners for a special diet.
In Virginia, a court-appointed guardian for sniper suspect John Lee Malvo complained that when Malvo asked for a halal meal, jailers began serving him a gruesome substance called "the loaf," made up of flour, raisins, carrots, potatoes and other ingredients baked into cakes.
Three inmates who were refused vegan meals at the Rikers Island prison in New York sued in July, saying they had ethical, moral and religious beliefs that it is wrong to eat food prepared with any animal products.
Alan Cotton, a Jewish inmate serving a life sentence for murder, is suing Florida over the state's refusal to give him kosher meals.
John Whitehead, president of the Rutherford Institute, a group that defends religious freedoms, said prisons have generally gotten better when it comes to accommodating inmate diet restrictions.
"They are learning more about it. You go back 20 years ago, and there wasn't a lot of accommodation at all," Whitehead said. "It seems to me that if someone gets into a religion, and gets highly ethical, that would be a good thing that you'd want to encourage. Why prisons would resist that, I don't know."