US Supreme Court turns down Jewish inmate’s discrimination case

Julie Wiener

(JTA) — The U.S. Supreme Court declined to take a case filed by a Jewish inmate accusing North Carolina prison officials of discrimination because they would not allow him to form a prayer and study group.

The court did not explain its decision Monday not to hear Israel Ben-Levi’s case, The Associated Press reported.

In a dissenting opinion, Justice Samuel Alito said the court’s “indifference to this discriminatory infringement of religious liberty is disappointing.”

Ben-Levi, 68, a convicted rapist, appealed to the Supreme Court after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit and a federal district judge ruled that prison officials could deny his 2012 request for a Jewish Bible study group.

The director of chaplaincy services for the North Carolina Department of Public Safety, Betty Brown, turned down Ben-Levi’s request because the department’s Religious Practices Manual, developed after consultation with “rabbis, experts and practitioners of Judaism,” requires that Jewish worship services have a minimum of 10 Jewish adults or a rabbi present, according to a brief filed on behalf of the defense.

No rabbi was available to lead the services and study, and Ben-Levi was asking for a group with only three participants.

It is not clear why rabbis advised the prison service in this manner, as Jewish law does not require a minyan for a study group, and while a minyan is necessary to conduct a Torah service and recite certain prayers, it is not required for all prayers.

In his dissent, Alito said the prison policy treated Jewish groups differently than Christian or Muslim groups.

“The courts below should have considered whether [North Carolina’s] policy imposed a substantial burden on Ben-Levi’s ability to exercise his religious beliefs, as he understands them,” Alito wrote. “Ben-Levi believes that relaxing the minyan requirement promotes his faith more than sacrificing group Torah study altogether.”

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