Brian Britt: Who Gets to Say Whose Belief is Sincere?

An example of a prison meal. Photo courtesy of Idaho Department of Correction

Brian Britt is professor of religion and culture at Virginia Tech. He wishes to thank Michael Meltsner for his advice on this piece. This essay originally appeared on Sightings, from the Martin Marty Center for the Public Understanding of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of BCNN1.


How do religious beliefs decide what prisoners and patients eat? Two recent court cases in Virginia pit religious diets against the need to serve diverse populations in public institutions.

In one case, a prison inmate has requested kosher food, while in another, the parents of a severely disabled patient in a state facility have sued for a diet and manner of feeding consistent with Jain beliefs.

Like other disputes over religious freedom, the cases share more than food in common with the 2018 case about a wedding cake for a gay wedding, Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission: “sincerely held” religious beliefs.

In cases that attempt to serve the “free exercise” of religion without its “establishment,” sincerely held religious beliefs have become standard fare. But how can the state judge religious sincerity while claiming religious neutrality?

I was recently asked to provide a letter supporting the Virginia prisoner’s request for a kosher diet. The inmate, a convert to Orthodox Judaism, complained that the prison had offered the “common fare” diet, designed to accommodate kosher and halal diets. In order to join the common fare program, prisoners must claim membership in an approved list of religions and eat only the common fare offerings.

The extensive procedures for preparing, cleaning, and separating common fare foods follow many rules for kosher food preparation, but common fare ingredients such as meat and cheese may not themselves be certified as kosher. The prisoner cited Estes v. Clarke, a 2018 case from the District Court for the Western District of Virginia, which supported a prisoner’s request to replace common fare food with certified kosher meals.

But in spite of Estes v. Clarke, the prisoner has so far not been given a kosher diet. His food service director argued that the process of identifying vendors and providing the food was too time-consuming. Now housed in a new prison, the inmate has repeated his request only to receive a strictly vegetarian, soy-based diet rather than one that is specifically kosher.

The problem is not limited to prisons. In another current case, Gupta v. Commonwealth of Virginia, the Jain parents of a young woman who requires round-the-clock care have petitioned on her behalf for food (a lacto-vegetarian diet free from garlic, ginger, and onion) and feeding by hand (rather than machine) consistent with their daughter’s sincerely held religious beliefs.

As with the prisons, the public medical facility claims the family’s request is too burdensome and expensive.

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Source: Religion News Service