Does a Muslim Inmate Have a First Amendment Right to a Halal Meal?

U.S. editor Abed Awad contextualizes a recent case in which a Muslim inmate filed suit against an American prison for failing to provide a halal meal.

On August 17, 2016, the American Civil Liberties Union, on behalf of a Muslim inmate, filed suit against Boone County Sheriff. Gannon Thomas v. Boon County Sheriff, No. 1:16-cv-2189. Gannon Thomas alleges that he is a practicing Muslim and is required by his religion to only consume halal food. The Boone County Sheriff, the complaint alleges, refuses to provide Mr. Thomas with Halal food. The Complaint further alleges that such denial violates Mr. Thomas’s First Amendment rights and Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana Code § 34-13-9-0.7, et seq.

The Religious Restoration Act provides that a correctional facility is not required to provide an inmate with specific religiously compliant meals unless such denial would “substantially burden” an inmate’s religious practice. In that case, the correctional facility’s burden upon Mr. Thomas must be to further a “compelling” governmental interest and that such burden is the “least restrictive means” to further the “compelling” interest.

Despite such a heightened scrutiny standard, courts around the country are split on whether the failure to provide an inmate with a religiously compliant meal would constitute a “substantial burden” upon religious practice. See, e.g., Patel v. U.S. Bureau of Prison, 515 F.3d 807 (8th Cir. 2008) (concluding that failure to provide a halal meal option did not substantially burden inmate’s religious practice because the inmate had vegetarian and kosher options and could purchase halal meals); but see Shakur v. Schriro, 514 F.3d 878 (9th Cir. 2008) (holding the failure to provide halal meals to Muslim inmates could constitute a “substantial burden” on religious practice).

The inmate’s religious requirement, of course, must be a sincerely held religious belief.  A Massachusetts court, for example, held that a kosher meal is not a sincerely held Christian belief for a Catholic inmate. Guzzi v. Thompson, 470 F. Supp.2d (D. Mass. 2007), vacated and remanded, 2008 WL 2059321 (1st Cir. 2008).  Similarly, the 6th Circuit found that a Zen Buddhist prisoner offered a vegetarian option was not entitled to a vegan diet because Buddhism does not require a vegan diet. Spies v. Voinovich, 173 F.3d 398 (6th Cir. 1999).

Is a halal diet a sincerely held religious belief?

If something is halal, it is permissible for a Muslim to eat. Muslims believe that Allah prohibited certain foodstuff because it is impure and unhealthy for consumption. The Qurʾān prohibits Muslims from consuming pork or any pork by-products. The consumption of predatory animals like lions, dogs, cats are similarly prohibited. Birds of prey like eagles, falcons and bats are also prohibited.

But even permissible animals such as cattle and lamb must be slaughtered according to strict requirements. The animal must be slaughtered swiftly by slitting its throat. Muslims believe that this method is the least painful for an animal. It further drains the blood out of the animal. The Qurʾān prohibited Muslims from eating dead meat, blood, strangled animals or animals killed by a violent blow or a headlong fall or being gored to death. The majority of jurists even concluded that at time of slaughter other animals should not be present.  While everything from the sea is generally permissible to consume including shellfish, Shia Muslims prohibit consumption of shellfish. Other dietary restrictions include a prohibition of consuming alcohol or the use of alcohol in preparing food.

At the end of the day, it is undisputed that a Muslim inmate’s religion restricts his diet, and that it is a sincere religiously held belief by a majority of Muslims. The same is true for many religious communities including Jews, Christians, Hindus, Buddhist and others.

Be that as it may, a correctional facility may only be required to provide the inmate with an alternative to the non-halal meal. In other words, if the correctional facility provides a Muslim inmate with an alternative meal, the court may conclude that the inmate’s religious practice would not be substantially burdened. The Boone County Sheriff in all likelihood will settle this matter by agreeing to serve Mr. Thomas and other Muslim inmates – out of the 200 inmates three of them are Muslim – a halal diet or provide some alternatives for Muslim inmates.