A federal court has ruled that the Florida Department of Corrections’ (Department) refusal to provide kosher meals to inmates violates the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). The court’s decision in U.S. v. Florida Department of Correction (S.D. FL 2015) is noteworthy for its application of two recent Supreme Court decisions – Burwell v. Hobby Lobby (2014) and Holt v. Hobbs (2014) – to find a violation of RLUIPA.

After the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) sued the Department, the Department agreed to provide kosher meals under its Religious Diet Program (RDP), but would not agree to entry of an order that it was required by law to provide kosher meals. The DOJ alleged that the Department’s prior complete ban of kosher meals violated RLUIPA’s substantial burden provision. It also claimed that certain penalty provisions of the RDP violated RLUIPA: (1) its policy that prisoners who miss 10% or more of one of the kosher meal options are no longer eligible to receive kosher meals, and (2) its policy that a prisoner discovered purchasing, processing, or consuming food from the canteen or another source that violates religious diet requirements can no longer obtain kosher food under the RDP. A prisoner can challenge either of these penalties under the prison’s grievance process, but the process can take up to 30 days during which time the prisoner must eat from the mainline.

Regarding the Department’s earlier prohibition on providing kosher meals, the Department argued that RLUIPA does not mandate that it provide such meals “because cost containment is a compelling governmental interest which excuses them from providing kosher meals.” The Department asserted that it had already spent $3.9 million to implement the RDP, but did not provide a breakdown of that number. It claimed that future costs to continue the RDP would be between $384,400 and $12.3 million per year. Costs include the cost of kosher food, additional equipment to monitor prisoners using the RDP program (laptops and scanners), and more staff.

The Court relied on Hobby Lobby to reject the Department’s argument and find that “RLUIPA may require the government to expend additional funds to accommodate citizens’ religious beliefs.” It noted that the $12.3 million per year to operate the RDP would account for only five one thousandths (0.005) of the Department’s $2.3 billion annual budget. It added: “it is hard to understand how Defendants can have a compelling state interest in not spending money that they are already voluntarily spending on the exact thing they claim to have an interest in not providing.” Further, the Department represented that it is “committed to providing kosher meals and that the current RDP is ‘sustainable,’ both monetarily and security-wise.” The Department failed to provide any evidence that the cost of the RDP has forced it to cut any other programs or staff, or that there has been any harm to the Department’s operations.

Next, the court looked to Holt v. Hobbs to consider whether the Department’s kosher meal prohibition was similar to other prison systems. It was persuaded by the DOJ’s contention that the Department, apart from its kosher meal prohibition, is not unlike the Federal Bureau of Prisons and most major prison systems across the country that offer kosher meals to prisoners. Relying on Holt, the court noted that “when so many prisons offer an accommodation, a prison must, at a minimum, offer persuasive reasons why it believes that it must take a different course, and the Department failed to make that showing here.”

Finally, the RDP’s penalty provisions were also found to violate RLUIPA, because denying a prisoner eligibility for up to 30 days when challenging a penalty under the grievance process “forces a prisoner, during the grievance process, to choose between violating his religious beliefs or not eating.” This can be especially burdensome to those prisoners who are penalized in error. The Department’s alleged compelling interest in cost-containment was again rejected, since “there is no record evidence indicating how much money is saved by immediately suspending violators, at least some of whom will be reinstated into the RDP after going through the grievance process.” Nor did the Department show how other cost-saving measures are not less restrictive alternatives to the penalty provisions.

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Photo of Evan Seeman Evan Seeman

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of…

Evan J. Seeman is a lawyer in Robinson+Cole’s Hartford office and focuses his practice on land use, real estate, environmental, and regulatory matters, representing local governments, developers and advocacy groups. He has spoken and written about RLUIPA, and was a lead author of an amicus curiae brief at the petition stage before the United States Supreme Court in a RLUIPA case entitled City of San Leandro v. International Church of the Foursquare Gospel.

Evan serves as the Secretary/Treasurer of the APA’s Planning & Law Division. He also serves as the Chair of the Planning & Zoning Section of the Connecticut Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Section, and is the former Co-Chair of its Municipal Law Section. He has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list as a Rising Star in the area of Land Use Law for 2013 and 2014. He received his B.A. in political science and Russian studies (with honors) from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, where he was selected as the President’s Fellow in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature. Evan received his Juris Doctor at the University of Connecticut School of Law, where he served on the Connecticut Law Review. While in law school, he interned with the Connecticut Office of the Attorney General in the environmental department, and served as a judicial intern for the judges of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Court. Following law school, Evan clerked for the Honorable F. Herbert Gruendel of the Connecticut Appellate Court.

Photo of Karla Chaffee Karla Chaffee

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six

Karla L. Chaffee is a member of Robinson+Cole’s Real Estate + Development Group and is based in the Boston office, focusing on a variety of land use and environmental matters. Karla’s interest in RLUIPA began in law school when she co-authored, “Six Fact Patterns of Substantial Burden in RLUIPA: Lessons for Potential Litigants,” (with Dwight Merriam) published in Albany Government Law Review (Spring 2009). Karla has continued to write and speak on RLUIPA and has represented clients in several federal proceedings, including RLUIPA, First Amendment, and Equal Protection claims. In addition to her RLUIPA practice, Karla has litigated complex environmental matters, defending claims under Massachusetts Chapter 21E. Karla’s transactional experience includes pre-acquisition and pre-financing due diligence, environmental risk assessment and risk mitigation. She also represents clients seeking local zoning approvals and counsels them on the impact of proposed or recently enacted land use legislation, as well as on land use trends across the country.

Karla is also a proud member of Robinson+Cole’s Pro Bono Committee and is dedicated to maintaining pro bono work as part of her practice. Her pro bono clients include individuals and families seeking asylum in the United States. She has also represented nonprofit organizations in obtaining tax-exempt status and has served as legal counsel in a zoning appeal for a nonprofit association created to support and protect a national park.

Photo of Dwight Merriam Dwight Merriam

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of…

Dwight H. Merriam founded Robinson+Cole’s Land Use Group in 1978. He represents land owners, developers, governments and individuals in land use matters, with a focus on defending governments in RLUIPA cases. Dwight is a Fellow and Past President of the American Institute of Certified Planners, a former Director of the American Planning Association (APA), a former chair of APA’s Planning and Law Division, Immediate Past Chair of the American Bar Association’s Section of State and Local Government Law, Chair of the Institute of Local Government Studies at the Center for American and International Law, a Fellow of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, a Fellow of the American Bar Foundation, a member of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute National Advisory Board, a Fellow of the Connecticut Bar Foundation, a Counselor of Real Estate, a member of the Anglo-American Real Property Institute, and a Fellow of the American College of Real Estate Lawyers.

He teaches land use law at the University of Connecticut School of Law and at Vermont Law School and has published over 200 articles and eight books, including Inclusionary Zoning Moves Downtown, The Takings Issue, The Complete Guide to Zoning, and Eminent Domain Use and Abuse: Kelo in Context. He is the senior co-author of the leading casebook on land use law, Planning and Control of Land Development (Eighth Edition). Dwight has written and spoken widely on how to avoid RLUIPA claims and how to successfully defend against them in court. He is currently writing a book on the subject, RLUIPA DEFENSE, for the American Bar Association.

Dwight has been named to the Connecticut Super Lawyers® list in the area of Land Use Law since 2006, is one of the Top 50 Connecticut Super Lawyers in Connecticut, and is one of the Top 100 New England Super Lawyers (Super Lawyers is a registered trademark of Key Professional Media, Inc.). He received his B.A. (cum laude) from the University of Massachusetts, his Masters of Regional Planning from the University of North Carolina, where he was the graduation speaker in 2011, and his J.D. from Yale. He is a featured speaker at many land use seminars, and presents monthly audio land use seminars for the International Municipal Lawyers Association. Dwight has been cited in the national press from The New York Times to People magazine and has appeared on NBC’s The Today Show, MSNBC and public television.

Dwight also had a career in the Navy, serving for three tours in Vietnam aboard ship, then returning to be the Senior Advisor of the Naval ROTC Unit at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill where he taught Defense Administration and Military Management as an Assistant Professor in the undergraduate and graduate curriculum in Defense Administration and Military Management. He left active duty after seven years to attend law school, but continued on for 24 more years as a reserve Surface Warfare Officer with two major commands, including that of the reserve commanding officer of the Naval Undersea Warfare Center. He retired as a Captain in 2009 after 31 years of service.