WASHINGTON (JTA) — Orthodox groups praised the court victory of a Jewish convert fighting for kosher food in a Nevada prison.
In its Dec. 2 ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that a lower court must determine the sincerity of Lawrence Seville Parks’ religious beliefs if the trial is to move forward. The groups say the ruling upholds a law protecting religious rights for the incarcerated.
Parks has claimed that his constitutional rights were violated because he initially was refused kosher food on the grounds that he couldn’t show a "hereditary connection" to Judaism or deep understanding of the religion. Parks is a black convert.
According to Morrison and Foerster, the legal firm representing Parks, the appellate court said the lower court "erred in issuing a summary judgment against Mr. Parks by failing to apply the strict scrutiny standard required by the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)."
Orthodox groups that had lobbied hard for passage of RLUIPA in 2000 praised the ruling.
"While we have not yet read the details of the appellate court decision, it is gratifying that RLUIPA is serving — in a general sense — its intended purpose of effectively protecting the religious rights of prisoners," said Abba Cohen, the Washington director for Agudath Israel of America. "Indeed, in this case the inmate’s right to receive kosher food turned on the very question of RLUIPA’s applicability. The statute fills a gaping hole regarding a vulnerable population. The lower court’s ruling — which emphasized inappropriate criteria (heredity and philosophical understanding) and utilized a deficient standard (rational basis) — shows how little recognition inmate’s rights would otherwise receive."
Nathan Diament, who directs the Orthodox Union’s Washington office, echoed the stance.
"This is an important and correct decision by the court," he said. "It’s why we worked to get RLUIPA enacted and bodes well for religious freedom in the U.S."
In September, officials at Ely State Prison began providing Parks with kosher food after he reportedly lost about 45 pounds. The appeals court ruling determined that his claim for damages is not erased because he is now receiving the food.