You have the right to practice the religion of your choice in prison. This includes the right to get a diet consistent with your religion. It also includes the right to not eat a food item forbidden in your religion or do fasting. This is a protected right under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. If you aren’t allowed a religious diet in prison, you can challenge it in court. There are constitutional and statutory ways to challenge the prison’s decision.
How do courts decide if you are eligible to get a religious diet?
Usually, a prison might reject a request to provide a religious diet if there is a genuine safety concern. In rejecting such a request, the prison must prove that there is a “legitimate penological concern“. This is the “Turner Test” that the court applies. It is to find out if a prison’s decision to not give you a religious diet is valid or not.
How can you raise a challenge under the First Amendment?
The Free Exercise Clause under the First Amendment protects your right to freely exercise religion. It means that the government cannot make a rule to prohibit your religious practice. But, inside prison it is different.
When challenging the prison’s decision you need to prove two things. First, your belief must be religious and recognized. For example, Christianity and Islam are well-known religions. But, there are ways to prove the existence of an unknown religion. For example, describing a God you worship, a holy book, a symbol, other members, or an origination story.
Second, your belief must be “sincere”. It could mean showing your daily religious habits, consistency and punctuality. If courts accept that, the prison must allow your religious diet.
As per the Establishment Clause under the First Amendment, the government cannot force you to follow a particular religion. In prison, if a rule forces you to follow a religion it is a violation of your constitutional right. You can challenge it in court.
How can you raise a challenge under the Fourteenth Amendment?
Under the Fourteenth Amendment, every person has the right to “equal protection under the Law”. It means that a rule or law is the same for everyone and no person can discriminate. In prison, it means that if a rule treats some incarcerated people of a particular religion differently than others, it is a violation. If you think a prison rule provides a religious diet to people of some religions and not to others. You can challenge this in court.
How can you raise a challenge under federal and state law?
The Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is a federal law that protects religious practice. As per this law, a rule inside prison cannot “substantially burden your exercise of religion”. It means that a prison rule cannot put pressure on you to not be able to follow your religion.
But, prison can put a burden if they prove two things to the court. First, the prison rule is “in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.” It means that the rule is very important to protect health, safety, and economy. Second, the rule is the “least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest.” It means that the rule imposes lesser restrictions of all to provide welfare. If you are detained in a federal prison you can bring an RFRA challenge to court to protect your rights.
The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) applies to prisons that receive federal funding. Almost all state prisons receive federal funding. So, you can bring an RLUIPA challenge if you are incarcerated in state prisons. Just like RFRA, RLUIPA protects you if a state prison can’t prove both parts of the above test.
If you or your loved ones are denied a diet consistent with your religion in prison you can challenge it in court. There are constitutional as well as legal protections to challenge it. Knowing these rules will help you or your loved ones from getting a religious diet in prison.