(CN) - Florida must offer kosher meals to all inmates whose "sincere religious beliefs" require kosher diets, a federal judge ruled.
Though the Sunshine State had previously offered kosher diet options at 13 of its prisons, it discontinued the program, which had enrolled close to 800 prisoners, in August 2007.
Beginning in 2010, the state ran a pilot kosher diet program in a single facility, which enrolled between eight and 18 prisoners, according to court filings.
The United States sued the Florida Department of Corrections in August 2012, alleging that Florida's refusal to offer kosher diets to prisoners in its 60 major facilities violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA) of 2000.
Though Florida continued to offer vegan, no-meat and medical diets at each facility, it never expanded the kosher program to other prisons and refused to consider any changes to its policies, the United States claimed.
Without notifying the federal government, in March 2013, the state began a new program - the Religious Diet Program - that offered kosher meals to inmates at Union Correctional Institution in northern Florida.
After the program received an unexpectedly high number of applications, with 40 percent of the prison's population choosing to participate, the state imposed restrictions that decreased the number of eligible inmates.
Prisoners were eligible to participate only if they passed a "sincerity test," which required them to answer questions about specific religious beliefs. Once inmates qualified, they had to wait for 90 days to have access to kosher diets. The program dropped inmates who missed 10 percent of available meals, even if they skipped meals due to fasting, unless they submitted a request for a religious fast 15 days in advance.
The Religious Diet Program also contained a "zero tolerance rule" under which an inmate was removed if he or she ate something not listed as kosher. Removal lasted for 30 days for a first offense, 120 days for a second offense and one year for all subsequent offenses.
Florida initially planned to expand the program to all prisons in September, but then announced that it would only introduce it to a handful of institutions by January, according to court papers.
The United States applied for a preliminary injunction to force the state to expand kosher meals to all prisons and to drop some of the Religious Diet Program's restrictions.
According to the federal government's complaint, state departments of corrections in New York, California, Texas and other states, as well as the Federal Bureau of Prisons offer kosher diets to prisoners without any of the restrictions adopted by Florida.
The state removed the 90-day waiting provision before the preliminary injunction hearing, but kept the other restrictions in place.
U.S. District Judge Patricia Seitz ruled last month that the United States still had a case despite Florida's changes to its dietary policies, because the state never expanded its kosher meals program beyond Union Correctional Institution.
She rejected Florida's argument that the South Florida federal court lacked jurisdiction over the challenges to the new program.
The state's denial of kosher meals to most prisoners unduly burdens inmates who desire religious diets and is not the least restrictive means of advancing the government's interest in controlling cost, according to the 33-page ruling.
Moreover, the state has not identified any compelling interest that can only be furthered by a blanket denial of a kosher diet. Even if enrollment rates were twice as high as in Florida's previous program, the cost of providing a kosher diet would be around $1 million per year, a relatively small percentage of the Department of Corrections' budget, the court found.
Florida had argued that, based on the high enrollment rates of the Union program, providing kosher meals at every prison could cost as much as $86.5 million per year.
But Seitz pointed to evidence that the initial interest in the program at Union might not have been based on religious reasons and could decline in the long run.
"Clearly, the current program has made the RDP a more appealing alternative than the standard meal options," Seitz wrote. "This is not a requirement of RLUIPA. Thus, it appears that the high participation rate will not be maintained as the RDP continues and the 'bugs' in the system, which currently have made the RDP more desirable than standard prison fare, are worked out."
Seitz also found that the program's conditions, such as the religious dogma testing, the zero-tolerance rule and the 10 percent provision violate federal laws protecting religious liberty.
Correctional institutions in other states effectively operate kosher diet programs without so many restrictions, and Florida should be able to do the same, according to the ruling.
"Injunctive relief is necessary to prevent irreparable harm to hundreds of Florida prisoners who believe that keeping kosher is an important part of their religious beliefs," Seitz wrote.
Enjoining the four challenged provisions of the program will not harm Florida. On the contrary, it will save resources and eliminate the administrative burden of testing and monitoring inmates' religious exercise, the ruling states.
A status conference with the parties is scheduled for next week.
Attorneys for the state did not immediately return requests for comment.