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Jones v. Carter

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

February 15, 2019

Roman Lee Jones, Plaintiff-Appellee,
Robert E. Carter, Jr., Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction, Defendant-Appellant.

          Argued September 7, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, Indianapolis Division. No. 16 C 2887 - William T. Lawrence, Judge.

          Before WOOD, Chief Judge, and ROVNER and Brennan, Circuit Judges.

          WOOD, CHIEF JUDGE.

         While a serving of meat from a prison kitchen would not prompt most Americans to run to a federal courthouse, it raises a critical problem for Indiana inmate Roman Lee Jones. Jones adheres to a sect of Islam that requires its members to follow a diet that regularly includes halal meat. It would not cost the state of Indiana a single penny to provide Jones with the diet he has requested. The only question before us in this appeal is whether Indiana's refusal to provide Jones with meat substantially burdens his exercise of religion under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act ("RLUIPA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l. We hold that it does.

         Jones observes Islamic dietary restrictions, which forbid the consumption of certain foods and require that others be prepared in accordance with Islamic law-that is, his food must be halal. Since there is overlap in halal and Jewish kosher requirements, some Muslims-including Jones-find kosher food to be an acceptable alternative to a purely halal diet. (There are differences, to be sure: followers of a kosher diet may not consume meat and dairy products together, while followers of halal may do so; alcohol is permissible for kosher, but not for halal; and the lists of permissible animals and seafoods differ slightly. See Halal vs Kosher, Diffen.COM, https://www. diff en. com/dif f erence/Halal_vs_Kosher (last visited February 14, 2019). Jones does not argue that these differences matter for his prison diet.)

         The Indiana Department of Correction ("DOC") formerly provided pre-packaged kosher meal trays, which included kosher meat, to all inmates who requested them. As demand for the kosher trays went up, however, so did the cost, which rose to between $40, 000 and $60, 000 a month on top of the per capita amount the DOC pays its contractor for standard meals. Unhappy with this trend, the DOC stopped offering the kosher trays and put all the affected inmates on a vegan diet (that is, one with no products made or derived from animals).

         That move satisfied no one: a class of inmates seeking kosher food sued the DOC and prevailed under RLUIPA in Willis v. Commissioner, Indiana Department of Correction. 753 F.Supp.2d 768, 772 (S.D. Ind. 2010). Rather than go back to providing everyone with kosher trays, the DOC worked out a new arrangement with its contractor so that kosher meals are now included in the per capita amount it pays the contratcor. The DOC built kosher kitchens at a few of its facilities and moved as many kosher inmates into those facilities as possible. Inmates who could not be moved would continue to receive the kosher trays, but inmates (including Jones) in a facility with a kosher kitchen were given only the option of eating the food prepared there. That food, however, is vegetarian (i.e. plant-derived, plus animal products not requiring slaughter, such as eggs, milk, cheese, and honey).

         While many Jewish and Muslim inmates would find a nutritionally adequate vegetarian diet that otherwise satisfies kosher standards to be fully compatible with their beliefs, Jones does not. Jones and the other members of his sect within Islam believe that the holy Qur'an plainly commands him to "eat what is on earth, Lawful and good"-including meat. Some Muslim scholars support Jones's interpretation, and the Imam employed by the DOC agreed that Jones's view is "a valid opinion" shared by some other Muslims, though not the Imam himself. Jones does not take the position that he needs to eat meat with every meal, but he believes it must be a regular part of his diet. After the DOC refused his request for kosher trays that include meat, he filed this suit.

         Under RLUIPA, the DOC cannot "impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution ... unless the [DOC] demonstrates that [it] ... (1) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (2) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest." 42 U.S.C. § 2000cc-l. Following a brief trial, the district court held in favor of Jones and ordered the DOC to give Jones at least eight meals a week that "contain kosher or halal meat." The judge left it up to DOC to decide on the most effective way to do this, but he specified that one permissible response would be to send Jones the kosher trays the DOC was already providing to inmates at faclities without kosher kitchens. The record indicates that this would not impose any incremental cost on the DOC. The court found that by requiring Jones to engage in conduct- refraining from all meat-that violates his sincerely held religious belief, the DOC had substantially burdened his religious exercise and on this record the DOC lacked a compelling government interest to justify that burden.

         On appeal, the DOC does not contest the sincerity of Jones's belief or the district court's finding that the DOC lacked a sufficient justification for its treatment of Jones. The sole issue the DOC raises is whether the district court erred in holding that Jones was substantially burdened by the vegetarian kosher diet when, as the DOC argues, he could have purchased the halal meat he needs to supplement his diet at the prison commissary. The DOC characterizes Jones's lack of meat as the result of "his own spending choices," not the result of any DOC action. It urges us to find that nothing less than the coercive pressure of the choice between violating his religion and facing starvation qualifies as a substantial burden under RLUIPA.

         For a time, there was some confusion among the circuits about what constitutes a substantial burden under RLUIPA.We interpreted the language as requiring that the government's action rendered the religious exercise "effectively impracticable." Nelson v. Miller, 570 F.3d 868, 878 (7th Cir. 2009). Other circuits developed different tests. See, e.g., Abdulhaseeb v. Calbone, 600 F.3d 1301, 1313 (10th Cir. 2010) (government must require, prohibit, or substantially pressure religiously relevant conduct); Moussazadeh v. Texas Dep't of Criminal Justice, 703 F.3d 781, 793 (5th Cir. 2012) (government must influence an adherent to act or force him to choose between a generally available non-trivial benefit and religious beliefs); Patel v. U.S. Bureau of Prisons, 515 F.3d 807, 814 (8th Cir. 2008) (government must significantly inhibit, meaningfully curtail, or deny reasonable opportunities for religious exercise). This confusion was largely dispelled, however, in two recent decisions from the Supreme Court: Holt v. Hobbs, 135 S.Ct. 853 (2015), and Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., 134 S.Ct. 2751 (2014). We recognized in Schlemm v. Wall that Holt and Hobby Lobby "articulate[d] a standard much easier to satisfy" than our former search for something rendering the religious exercise "effectively impracticable." 784 F.3d 362, 364 (7th Cir. 2015).

         In Hobby Lobby, a case involving RLUIPA's sister statute, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act ("RFRA"), 42 U.S.C. § 2000bb-l, three closely held corporations faced the choice between providing contraceptive coverage for their employees in violation of their religious beliefs or paying a substantial fine that would enable them to omit the coverage to which they objected. The Supreme Court found that this choice was no choice at all: it imposed a substantial burden on the owners' religious exercise, and the government had not shown that it was the least restrictive means of serving the government's (assumed) compelling interest. 134 S.Ct. at 2759. The Court rejected the suggestion that the corporations could "eliminate[] the substantial burden" and avoid the fine by dropping employee health insurance entirely since that would also cause economic harm. Id. at 2776-77. In so ruling, the Court emphasized that Congress explicitly stated that RFRA should "be construed in favor of a broad protection of religious exercise, to the maximum extent permitted by the terms of this chapter and the Constitution." Id. at 2762 (quoting § 2000cc-3(g)).

         The next year, in Holt, the Court considered the case of a Muslim inmate who wanted to grow a 1/2-inch beard in accordance with his religious beliefs. Such a beard, however, offended the grooming policy of the Arkansas Department of Corrections, and so the Department refused to allow him to grow it. When the case arrived at the Supreme Court, the Court read RLUIPA as an "expansive protection for religious liberty" and held that the inmate "easily" demonstrated a substantial burden because he faced "serious disciplinary action" if he violated the grooming policy and grew the beard. 135 S.Ct. at 860, 862. The Court further rejected attempts to call the burden of shaving "slight" if shaving was not absolutely prohibited by ...

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