Commonwealth Court: denial of kosher meals does not violate inmate's religious rights

By Jim Boyle | May 28, 2014

The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections would not be violating a Muslim prisoner's

religious freedom if it denied him access to the kosher menu provided to Jewish prisoners, according to a ruling Tuesday from the Commonwealth Court.

The plaintiff, Sean Pressley, an inmate for 20 years at the Mahonoy state prison in Schuylkill County, requested the alternative menu because the kitchen's dishwashing process did not follow the Islamic religion's methods for cleaning away pork residue from dishes and utensils. He requested a pork-free kosher diet that is offered to Jewish inmates to ensure he did not violate his religion's teachings.

Providing the meals to Pressley would create a precedent that would require the same accommodations for the rest of Pennsylvania's Muslim prisoners, the state argued. The cost for three regular meals per day is $3.49 per inmate, compared to $5.95 per day for the kosher menu.

According to a state official in the department of corrections, there are currently 10,000 Pennsylvania inmates who practice the Islamic religion. The DOC argued that "a system where Muslim inmates are allowed to “cross-identify” their religious affiliations for the purposes of obtaining the combined benefits of two separate religions could result in millions of dollars of increased costs for food services at state correctional institutions that already suffer from reduced budgets."

Pressley countered by arguing that costs would be offset by removing the need to adhere to the Muslim religion's timely method of cleaning pork residue from the utensils. The proper manner for cleaning items contaminated by pork, Pressley says, is to have the article cleaned so that none of the impurity remains and then wash it six times with clean water and once with water and earth.

In the opinion, Commonwealth Court Judge Bernard L. McGinley said Pressley did not prove his religious freedom had been denied. The prison offered an alternative, non-kosher protein meal that did not have any animal meat. This cost neutral alternative allows the prison to meet Pressley's dietary needs without creating a ripple effect to the rest of the Muslim inmates throughout the state.

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