MIAMI (AP) - The state of Florida asked a federal appeals court Tuesday to allow it to discontinue a kosher meals program for thousands of religiously observant prison inmates in the event that chronic budget problems worsen and other costs take priority.
An attorney representing the Florida Department of Corrections told a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that the estimated $12.3 million additional cost of kosher meals could become prohibitive if other budget needs arise.
The state is appealing a decision by a Miami judge requiring kosher food for inmates who request if for religious reasons. That includes not only Jewish inmates, but Muslims, Seventh Day Adventists and people of other faiths as well, the corrections department said.
The lawsuit was brought against the state in 2012 by the U.S. Justice Department under a federal law guaranteeing the religious rights, including diets, of people in prisons and other government institutions.
About 10,000 of Florida's roughly 100,000 inmates get the meals, which are currently available in about two-thirds of the state's prisons, attorney Lisa Kuhlman Tietig said. The state also provides vegan meals, which are less expensive than standard fare, and special medically-required diets, which the state is not seeking to change.
The state simply wants budget flexibility — not court-mandated oversight — if it needs to shift money away from the kosher program in the future to address potential needs such as prison security, deteriorating buildings, outdated prison transport vehicles and inmate medical costs, Tietig told the panel.
"It should be a policy decision if there's a substantial cost," she said. "We have a substantial, compelling interest in cost savings."
Justice Department attorney Christopher Wang countered that cost is not a compelling reason to drop a federally required kosher food program. Thirty-five other states and the federal Bureau of Prisons all provide the meals without problems, he said.
"The budget deficit in and of itself is not sufficient," he said. "They are doing it. They haven't had this parade of horribles."
The Justice Department wants a court ruling to remain in place to guarantee the state won't later abandon the kosher program, as it has done before. Several outside groups also support the court-ordered guarantee.
"When prisons refuse to provide kosher meals, many Jewish prisoners don't eat non-kosher food; they go hungry," said Daniel Blomberg, legal counsel of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which filed a friend-of-the-court brief. "That's unnecessary, and it's wrong. Prisoners surrender many of their physical rights at the jailhouse door, but they do not surrender their human dignity."
The judges seemed sympathetic to the federal government's position. Circuit Judge William Pryor said that if and when serious budget problems actually surface, the state corrections secretary could simply ask a judge to modify the ruling.
Until then, "we know the secretary can pay for it, because the secretary has paid for it," Pryor said.
The court will issue a ruling in the coming months.
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