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Federal judge denies Virginia inmate's request for kosher meals

By The Associated Press

02.03.03

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ROANOKE, Va. — A federal judge has denied a Virginia prisoner's request for kosher meals, declaring unconstitutional part of a federal law that dictates how government should treat the religious rights of inmates.

Senior U.S. District Judge James Turk ruled Jan. 24 that requiring prison officials to provide Ira Madison, 32, with kosher meals would place the right to religious freedom above other civil rights.

For example, Turk wrote, under the law a white supremacist would have a better chance keeping racist literature in prison if he declared it part of his religion instead of his right to free expression.

Madison's attorney, Richard Menard of Washington, D.C., said he planned to appeal Turk's ruling to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

Elliot Mincberg with People for the American Way said his organization would support an appeal.

"What we're talking about here is not granting preference to religion, but trying to remove the burdens on religions that are placed by government agencies," Mincberg said.

The law that took effect in 2000 — the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act — prohibits prison officials from refusing inmates the ability to exercise religion, unless they can show a compelling reason.

Madison, a Hebrew Israelite serving time in the Buckingham Correctional Center for cocaine possession, filed a lawsuit in 2001 because his request for a kosher diet was denied.

State authorities questioned the sincerity of Madison's belief, arguing that while in prison he had first expressed interest in Protestantism.

Menard, however, said Madison "seems to be quite sincere in his religious beliefs."

Hebrew Israelites, as they call themselves, are a group of American blacks who regard themselves as the true descendants of the biblical tribe of Judah.

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