MIAMI – The state of Florida cannot use the vague threat of potential budget shortfalls to deny thousands of prisoners kosher meals they request for religious reasons, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.
The three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the Justice Department and against the Florida Department of Corrections. The state wanted permission to discontinue the kosher meals if the estimated $12.3 million cost was needed elsewhere.
Supporters of the kosher program praised the ruling, which was released only two days after the judges heard oral arguments.
"This is a huge win, and it perfectly shows how protecting religious liberty for any Americans ultimately protects it for all Americans," said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a nonprofit law firm that filed a friend-of-court brief in the case. "Allowing prisoners to practice their faith is better for them, better for prisons, and better for society."
Circuit Judge William Pryor wrote in the 15-page decision that the state's argument "lacks any support on the record" and that there were ample mechanisms for Florida to find the money to continue the kosher meals.
The state, Pryor wrote, "failed to create a genuine dispute of material fact that the cost of providing kosher meals is so high that it is compelling."
The ruling upholds a previous decision by a Miami federal judge which permanently requires that the meals be provided. About 10,000 of Florida's roughly 100,000 inmates currently participate in the kosher program, which includes Jewish inmates, Muslims and Seventh Day Adventists, Florida officials have said.
The lawsuit was brought against the state in 2012 by the Justice Department under a law guaranteeing the religious rights of people in prisons and other government institutions.
The state could still ask the full 11th Circuit to reconsider the case. A spokesman for state Attorney General Pam Bondi did not immediately respond to an email.
The state also provides vegan meals, which are less expensive than standard fare, and special medically-required diets and therapeutic diets, which the state did not seek to change.
The state had claimed it needed budget flexibility to potentially shift money away from the kosher program in the future to address potential needs such as prison security, deteriorating buildings, outdated prison transport vehicles and inmate medical costs.
But the 11th Circuit's ruling made it clear the money would have to be found by whatever means necessary to allow inmates to keep kosher for religious reasons.
"If the (Corrections Department) must provide kosher meals, then the Legislature must appropriate enough funds to honor that obligation," Pryor wrote.
According to the Justice Department, 35 other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons all provide the meals without significant problems. The Justice Department wanted the court ruling to remain in place to guarantee Florida won't later abandon the kosher program, as it has done before.