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Case Studies

Pro Bono Effort Preserves Religious Rights of Incarcerated Persons

Providing Pro Bono legal services and supporting access to justice initiatives for underserved populations is a cornerstone of Bodman’s commitment to diversity both within the firm and in the communities we serve. This commitment was front and center in a recent federal appellate case that Bodman’s Tom Rheaume and Alexandra Markel handled which resulted in a victory on behalf of incarcerated persons of the Jewish faith.

Before 2013, the Michigan Department of Corrections (“MDOC”) provided kosher meals with meat and dairy to Jewish inmates. The MDOC also allowed inmates to receive traditional religious foods donated by outside sources for Jewish holidays. However, in 2013, the MDOC implemented a universal vegan meal for all prisoners who qualify for a religious diet. In addition, the MDOC began to prohibit Jewish organizations from providing food to inmates for religious holiday celebrations.

A group of Jewish Michigan inmates challenged the MDOC policy, winning a victory in federal court. When MDOC appealed the lower court’s decision to the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals, Rheaume stepped in. Rheaume prepared a convincing argument, leading the Sixth Circuit to unanimously uphold the lower court decision. As a result, Jewish prisoners in Michigan now have the right to remain kosher, however the individual inmate interprets that. That right is protected by federal law. The MDOC has an obligation to ensure it does not stand in the way of that right.

“The Sixth Circuit rightly upheld the sincerely held religious beliefs of incarcerated persons,” Rheaume said. “The decision paves the way for a class of Jewish prisoners to eat religious meals in accordance with the precepts of their religion as opposed to non-conforming religious meals deemed sufficient by the state. The accommodation of religion upheld today by the Sixth Circuit should be lauded.”

Markel added, “Ensuring that Michigan’s prison population’s right to keep kosher is not violated was particularly meaningful because of my own Jewish faith, and belief in tikkun olam, the obligation to help “repair the world. It was so rewarding to see the Sixth Circuit agree with our position, that keeping kosher, however the individual prisoner interprets that, is a right protected by federal law and that MDOC has an obligation to ensure it does not stand in the way of that right.”