Judge rules in favor of prisoner in kosher food case


A federal judge has ruled that the Missouri Department of Corrections (MDOC) must provide kosher meals to a Missouri prison inmate who identifies himself as Jewish.

The inmate, Norman Lee Toler, filed the suit in December 2005 after prison officials denied his requests for kosher food.

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U.S. District Judge Jean Hamilton ruled April 3 that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) and the First Amendment, Toler is entitled to be served kosher meals.

Toler was sentenced in Dec. 2004 to 10 years in prison for first degree statutory rape with a person less than 14 years old, according to court documents. He has been an inmate at the Northeast Correctional Center (NECC) in Bowling Green, Mo.

The ruling gives the MDOC 60 days to review the ruling, and determine how to provide Toler with kosher meals, according to MDOC spokesman Brian Hauswirth. He said the MDOC has not yet decided to appeal the ruling, noting, “We are currently reviewing all of our options.”

At a non-jury trial at the Thomas F. Eagleton U.S. Courthouse on Jan. 2 and 3, lawyers from the Attorney General’s office had argued that serving Toler kosher meals would be cost-prohibitive, a burden on staff to do so, and could potentially cause security problems at the prison.

During the trial they also questioned the sincerity of Toler’s Judaism.

They introduced evidence of Toler’s Christian upbringing, and said that while he was incarcerated in Illinois, he was affiliated with a white supremacist prison gang. They pointed to Illinois prison records that Toler was found with “white supremist contraband” including images of Adolf Hitler, and said that he has a tattoo with a crucifix and the letters “S.S.”

Nathan Plumb, one of Toler’s court-appointed lawyers, said Toler was raised in a Christian family, but converted to Judaism.

Plumb said Toler testified that he had been “loosely affiliated” with the white supremacist gang as a means of protection against gangs of black and Hispanic prisoners. Plumb said Toler testified that since he has been in a Missouri prison, he has not been affiliated with any white supremacist groups.

Plumb said Toler testified that the “crucifix tattoo” is, in fact, an eagle, and was misconstrued.

Judge Hamilton wrote in the ruling that although Toler may have never formally converted to Judaism, “the MDOC allows inmates to declare their religious preference at any time, and does not make determinations as to whether the inmates are sincere in their religious beliefs.” She also noted that Toler has provided evidence that he does practice Judaism “in many ways, including reading from the Torah every Sabbath, studying Jewish materials and topic throughout the week, wearing a yarmulke, fasting as required by the Jewish holy days, and keeping in contact with various rabbis in the community.”

In court documents filed by Toler, Toler wrote that Missouri Department of Corrections personnel have imposed “a substantial burden” on his ability to exercise his religious beliefs by not providing kosher food. “The availability of nutritionally-sufficient kosher food for a Jew is not a luxury accommodation; it is an essential provision to allow that person to live,” he wrote in a court document.

Toler wrote that since he “must choose between eating non-kosher food and death, every bite he takes is done at the peril of his very soul.”

Lawyers for the Attorney General’s office argued that under the standards set forth in RLUIPA, and backed by a 1987 Supreme Court judgment in Turner v. Safley and other cases, the government has to balance any burden on inmates’ religious exercise with the government’s “compelling interest” in maintaining a secure and cost-effective facility.

The attorneys wrote in court documents that there is “no substantial burden on Toler’s ability to practice his religion. MDOC does not serve its inmates kosher meals, but does serve a vegetarian option for breakfast, dinner, and supper meals.” In addition, they wrote, Toler is able to purchase kosher food items from the prison canteen. They wrote that even if the court finds that Toler’s religious freedom was burdened, that providing kosher meals would be cost prohibitive.

If the state purchased pre-packaged kosher meals for Toler, the cost, for only two of the three meals typically served, would be “more than three times the current average cost,” according to court documents filed for the MDOC.

Tim Leopold, food service manager at NECC, testified that serving a different meal to a single inmate could raise security concerns — that disruptions to the food line could potentially create discord among prisoners.

However, Toler argued that being denied access to kosher food is burdensome, and that the state could accommodate his religious diet at minimal cost.

Judge Hamilton agreed, writing that since Toler has demonstrated that he is indigent, he cannot reasonably afford purchasing kosher meals at the prison canteen. In addition, she wrote that the MDOC had not demonstrated that the cost of providing pre-packaged kosher meals would be cost prohibitive. In addition, she wrote in the ruling that the prison does accommodate inmates with dietary restrictions, and the MDOC did not demonstrate that doing so has caused incidents among inmates or other security concerns.

Hauswirth, the spokesman for MDOC, said the department does make accommodations for Jewish prisoners, including providing chapel time for Jewish prisoners, allowing Jewish ritual and study items, and time off from work on Jewish holidays.

He said that of the 29,792 inmates currently in MDOC facilities, between 60 and 70 inmates have identified themselves as Jewish to prison officials.