Texas inmate wins Orthodox Jews the right to kosher meals in prison
Until now, Texas was among a declining number of states that refused to provide kosher meals to prison inmates, citing the cost
By Tom Uhler
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
WASHINGTON — A Texas inmate has won a 12-year battle with the state over access to kosher meals in prison.
Inmate Max Moussazadeh dropped his federal lawsuit against the Texas Department of Criminal Justice after persuading the state to provide kosher food not only to him but to all Orthodox Jewish inmates in Texas.
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans dismissed the suit on Friday, according to a news release from the Beckett law firm of Washington, D.C., which represented the inmate.
Until now, Texas was among a declining number of states that refused to provide kosher meals to prison inmates, citing the cost.
In addition, the rules governing kosher foods have certain preparation and storage requirements. For example, utensils that have come in contact with non-kosher food may not be used with kosher food; meat can’t be eaten with dairy; pork and shellfish is verboten. Separate cookware, utensils and flatware must generally be used.
“At least thirty-five states and the federal government have been providing a kosher diet for years,” Luke Goodrich, deputy general counsel at Becket, said in the news release after the court filing. “They have shown that the benefits of respecting religious freedom are worth far more than a few pennies per meal.”
Moussazadeh, who was serving time for a Houston murder, filed a grievance with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice in 2005 complaining that he was being forced to eat non-kosher foods. A lifelong Jew, he requested that he be given access to kosher meals to fulfill his religious duty.
Moussazadeh said that he was required by his faith to eat kosher foods and that not being allowed to do so forced him to go against his religious beliefs, for which God would punish him.
The TDCJ denied his request, so Moussazadeh sued the same year on the grounds that the state had violated the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act and the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The TDCJ eventually began offering kosher food at the Stringfellow Unit where it transferred Moussazadeh and other observant Jewish inmates, but the suit remained open because the state refused to guarantee that it would never deny Moussazadeh kosher meals. It provided kosher food in other units at the prison commissary where inmates had to buy it.
The case went back and forth in the courts, and Moussazadeh was transferred to another unit after committing infractions — bringing the kosher issue with him. It eventually landed back in the 5th Circuit which ruled in 2012 that the state had violated Moussazadeh’s faith and that the cost of providing kosher meals was minimal, “less than .005 percent of the food budget.” It sent the case back to the lower court.
Once the state began providing kosher food to all the state’s Orthodox Jewish inmates, Moussazadeh put the suit on hold until his release from prison. Finally, on Friday the 5th Circuit dismissed the case.
“Protecting religious freedom in prison is not only smart, but also the right thing to do,” Goodrich said. “Allowing prisoners to practice their faith results in better behavior in prison and less crime after release—and it respects human dignity.”
©2017 the Fort Worth Star-Telegram