Michigan inmates win right to kosher meat, cheesecake

DETROIT – Michigan must serve kosher meat, dairy and cheesecake to prisoners observing the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, a federal appeals court said, rejecting arguments that a special menu would be too costly and disruptive.

The Corrections Department typically offers a vegan meal to anyone with religious dietary needs. But the appeals court said it was a “substantial burden” on the rights of prisoners who said they instead need meat and dairy to practice their Jewish faith.

In a 3-0 opinion this week, the appeals court affirmed a decision by U.S. District Judge Linda Parker. The court analyzed the case under a federal law that protects the exercise of religion in a confined setting.

Gerald Ackerman and Mark Shaykin sued after the state in 2013 adopted a vegan religious meal and said Jewish organizations could no longer send food for four holidays.

Prisoners can purchase small kosher meat and dairy products at the commissary, but the food can't be brought into the chow hall. Ackerman and Shaykin said they must eat the special food as meals, not snacks.

The Corrections Department said providing meat to all Jewish prisoners on holidays and the Sabbath would cost about $10,000 a year.

“The interest in simply avoiding an annual $10,000 outlay here is not compelling. ... The MDOC annual food budget is $39 million,” the appeals court said.

The state also argued that an exception to its religious meal policy would turn prison kitchens into a “religious-accommodation buffet.” But the three-judge panel said the state failed to properly develop that defense.

Ackerman and Shaykin believe they must eat kosher cheesecake on Shavuot, which recalls the ancient harvest of wheat and the delivery of the Torah to Jews.

The appeals court said the “cheesecake issue is trickier” than meat and milk, but it affirmed the trial judge's findings.

Parker “reached the defensible conclusion that (she) should credit the prisoners’ testimony that they believe cheesecake is mandatory on Shavuot. That’s all that is required,” the appeals court said.

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