Under a court-approved settlement filed late yesterday afternoon, the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC) will accommodate the religious requirements of thousands of prisoners in Michigan, including providing meals that comport to Muslims’ religious beliefs, and allowing individuals to attend religious observances that may conflict with work assignments. The agreement was reached in a federal class-action lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.
“The government may not deprive Americans of their fundamental right to practice their religion, even when they are prison,” said Michael J. Steinberg, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “Thanks to this groundbreaking case, Muslim prisoners will no longer be forced to eat food that violates their religious principles and they won’t be punished for joining weekly prayers or celebrating important religious holidays.”
The settlement mandates that Muslim inmates be provided halal meals, or meals prepared accordance with religious tenets. The MDOC must also now allow Muslim inmates to congregate for a meal on the two Eid holidays.
For many years the MDOC provided Jewish inmates with kosher meals and allowed them to celebrate Passover, but did not afford similar opportunities to Muslim inmates. There are more than 1,800 Muslim inmates within the Michigan prison system.
In addition, the court ordered that the MDOC make efforts to accommodate inmates who attend weekly religious services even if doing so conflicts with scheduled work. Prisoners of all faiths previously cited for misconduct because they refused to carry out prison-ordered assignments because of religious observances may have the infractions and any accompanying penalties stricken from their records.
In 2009, the ACLU of Michigan filed a federal class-action lawsuit on behalf of Muslim and Seventh-day Adventist inmates alleging that the MDOC had violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), the First Amendment guarantee to religious freedom, and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
In August, U.S. District Court Judge Avern Cohn ruled the Michigan Department of Corrections had violated the religious rights of Muslim inmates by denying them the ability to attend Eid meals and refusing to accommodate their need to attend weekly prayer services. Today’s court-ordered agreement resolves the rest of the case.
“One measure of a civilized society is how it treats its prisoners,” said ACLU Cooperating Attorney Daniel Quick. “This victory is not only a win for thousands of inmates of faith, but it is a victory for everyone who believes in our Constitution.”
In addition to Steinberg and Quick, plaintiffs were represented by ACLU Cooperating Attorney Doron Yitzchaki. Both Quick and Yitzchaki are attorneys with the law firm of Dickinson Wright.
Read the court-approved settlement.
Read Judge Cohn's Aug. 2013 order regarding the religious rights of Muslim inmates.