10th Circuit rejects inmate’s lawsuit over special diet
A federal appeals court has found that a Colorado inmate failed to show his religious-liberty rights were violated when prison officials denied his requests for a vegetarian diet.
Aaron I. Jordan, an inmate at Adams County Detention Facility from September through November 2009, requested a non-meat diet. When asked about his religious affiliation, Jordan claimed he was a member of the Ever Increasing Faith and his leader was Jesus Christ.
Sterritt Fuller, an ACDF official, denied the request, saying Jordan’s request for a special diet was not religiously based.
Jordan then sued in federal court, claiming a violation of his First Amendment free-exercise rights. A federal judge, following the recommendation of a magistrate judge, dismissed Jordan’s claim.
Jordan then appealed to the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the lower court Jan. 9 in Jordan v. Fuller. The appeals court noted that “the magistrate judge concluded that the evidence demonstrated that Jordan did not practice any particular religion or attend a particular church holding vegetarianism as a church tenet.”
The appeals court also cited evidence in the lower court in which Jordan admitted that the diet was a personal choice.
The decision may hold lessons for inmates who, like Jordan, file lawsuits on their own. Jordan might have been more successful had he filed a claim under a federal or state law that provides protection for religious liberty. Inmates who have challenged prison decisions through the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, or state versions of those laws have had better outcomes in the courts than those who have filed a constitutional claim under the free-exercise clause.
Also, inmates making such claims should emphasize that their choice of diet is made for religious reasons and provide some religious-based literature that supports their contention.