State continues challenge to inmate’s request for vegetarian diet

Friday, January 21, 2000

Pennsylvania prison officials will continue their legal battle against an inmate who says his fundamental rights are being subverted by the state's refusal to provide him a diet comporting with his religious beliefs.

On Jan. 3, a three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed U.S. District Judge William Standish's decision that the state had not violated the prisoner's constitutional rights, because vegetarianism was not a central tenet of Buddhism.

The inmate, Robert Perry DeHart, was convicted of murder in 1980 and received a life sentence. According to court records he became interested in and started studying Buddhism in 1982. In 1995, citing his understandings of Buddhist texts, the Sutras, DeHart requested and was denied a vegetarian diet.

J. Bart DeLone, a deputy Pennsylvania attorney general, today said that the state would ask the entire 3rd Circuit to review and reverse the three-judge panel decision.

Citing U.S. Supreme Court precedent, the 3rd Circuit panel first noted that “convicted prisoners do not forfeit all constitutional protections by reason of their conviction and confinement in prison.”

In 1987, the high court opined in O'Lone v. Shabazz that prisoners “clearly retain protections afforded by the First Amendment, … including its directive that no law shall prohibit the free exercise of religion.”

However, in a separate ruling in 1987, the Supreme Court justices noted that some prison regulations that impinge upon prisoners' fundamental rights could be constitutional. The court in Turner v. Safley stated, in part, that a prison regulation that does violate an inmate's constitutional rights “is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests,” such as security and health.

Corrections officials argued that they denied DeHart's diet request because they had a legitimate interest in keeping the food system simple and efficient and avoiding possible resentment and jealousy among other inmates.

Although the 3rd Circuit agreed that the prison officials' interests were legitimate, it said the district judge erred in deciding that DeHart's request for a vegetarian diet was not a central tenet of Buddhism and that therefore he could be treated differently from other religious inmates. Pennsylvania corrections officials conceded that a couple of Jewish inmates had requested and were granted kosher meals.

“The District Court's reliance on the fact that DeHart's beliefs are not shared by others in the Buddhist religion is inconsistent with both Supreme Court caselaw and the precedent of this court,” Judge Walter K. Stapleton wrote for the court in DeHart v. Horn. “As the Supreme Court cautioned in Employment Division v. Smith: 'It is not within the judicial ken to question the centrality of particular beliefs or practices of faith, or the validity of particular litigants' interpretations of those creeds.' “

Stapleton said the corrections officials' actions toward DeHart “forced him to do something forbidden by his religious beliefs.”

“There are simply no alternative means by which DeHart can maintain a diet in conformity with his religious beliefs; he is either provided a vegetarian diet, or he is not,” the court concluded.