An Orthodox Jewish prisoner filed a class action lawsuit Wednesday that alleges officials with the Nevada Department of Corrections are violating the First Amendment with their decision to end kosher food options for inmates.
"This is a matter that's been well-litigated," attorney Jacob Hafter said. "Nevada is clearly on the wrong side of the issue. And so we had to file suit because they won't work with us."
Hafter represents Howard Ackerman, an inmate at the Northern Nevada Correctional Center in Carson City. Ackerman's lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Las Vegas. He alleges the Department of Corrections is violating his First Amendment right to free exercise of religion.
"I can't respond because we are in litigation," department spokesman Kevin Ingram said.
Hafter said the department announced its decision to end kosher food options for prisoners in December. He said the decision does not only affect Orthodox Jews. Other prisoners, such as observant Muslims, also rely on a kosher diet to meet the requirements of their religions, the lawyer said.
In 2002, death row inmate Travers Greene filed a similar lawsuit against the state. The case was resolved when the Department of Corrections agreed to provide Greene kosher food.
Last month, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a ruling that requires the Indiana Department of Corrections to provide kosher food to observant Jewish inmates, Hafter said.
After the Greene case was resolved, according to Ackerman's lawsuit, kosher diets were provided to Jewish prisoners who requested them. Those prisoners received prepackaged kosher meals when they went through the meal line.
"All kosher diets have been or are about to be terminated within the DOC," according to the lawsuit.
Hafter said prison officials have told him their new policy "will not affect Mr. Greene," an Orthodox Jewish prisoner who is being housed at Ely State Prison.
Greene, 34, received a death sentence for killing two people near Sunrise Mountain in September 1994.
He shot Christopher Payton and Deborah Farris, both 18, in what was described by prosecutors as a "thrill killing." The couple were camping in the area.
Ackerman, 50, was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in a kidnapping case.
According to his lawsuit, keeping kosher is "a central and essential tenet of Orthodox Judaism."
Those who adhere to a kosher diet do not eat pork, shellfish or certain birds. Also, meat and dairy products may not be eaten together. Although fruits and vegetables are kosher, they may not come into contact with non-kosher food, utensils or dishes.
Ackerman "is being forced to go without food or to modify his behavior, eat non-kosher foods, and violate his beliefs," his lawsuit alleges.
Hafter said he understands the views of those who say people should not commit crimes if they do not want to lose their rights.
But, he responded, "Isn't part of the purpose of being institutionalized to reform somebody?"
The lawyer said some people find religion in prison. He also said some people land in prison by unintentionally hurting someone or by being falsely accused.
"The real reason that I took this case is because what happens if, God forbid, I would wind up in prison or jail," said Hafter, an Orthodox Jew.
"The fact of the matter is I would hope that I could practice my religious beliefs to the fullest extent that the Constitution allows."
Hafter said Orthodox Jews believe that observance of the kosher dietary laws is "a divine commandment."
"Judaism is a way of life," he said. "We have laws that govern all of our actions ... and no law is supposed to be more important than the other."
Contact reporter Carri Geer Thevenot at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-384-8710.