When it comes to fine cuisine, few gourmands would fight to be served peanut butter, sardines, beans and some other canned goods -- often cold.
While these foods are not very appealing, they are kosher. Thus, they are common items on the menu the Florida Department of Corrections has offered prisoners requesting kosher meals.
First Amendment activists have repeatedly clashed in federal courts with Florida officials who insist a kosher-food option would be too expensive.
"These aren't prisoners who have made up some kind of religion that requires them to eat lobster every day, claiming they're members of the Church of the Lobster," noted attorney Daniel Blomberg of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. The Becket team filed an amicus brief backing the prisoners' rights, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
"No one goes to a lot of trouble to eat bread and beans," he added. "The prisoners are making these requests because this is what they believe God wants them to do. … The 'religious' diet these prisoners are being served is, frankly, unpalatable."
Federal and Florida officials have been haggling over these dietary details since 2011, leading to six federal-court decisions backing the prisoners. The state says a kosher-foods program costs about $12.3 million a year, compared to a U.S. government estimate of roughly $384,000.
The 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recently dismissed, again, Florida's claims that it isn't required to offer kosher meals in state prisons. Currently, 35 states and the federal government provide "religious diets" to prisoners.
"Our nation's prisons are not less safe because Jewish prisoners can have an acceptable religious diet. We would argue exactly the opposite," said Blomberg. "Our prisons are safer when people of different faiths are treated with respect and are allowed to follow their beliefs and there is no evidence out there to the contrary."
Religious-liberty disputes have, of course, been making headlines in recent years. In some cases, broad coalitions -- with activists on left and right -- have won significant victories linked to worship and visual symbols linked to faith.
For example, a Muslim prisoner in Arkansas won the right to grow a short beard, in keeping with this faith. Native Americans have fought against federal laws forbidding them to possess eagle feathers, which are used in their sacred rites. A Sikh believer at the IRS won the right to carry a small ceremonial knife in federal buildings. The "kirpan" is one of five sacred symbols Sikhs strive to wear at all times.
It helps, in the Florida cases, that most of the prisoners requesting kosher foods are active in traditional faiths -- Judaism, Islam and the Seventh-day Adventist Church -- that have clearly defined and often ancient dietary laws.
"There's no requirement that you show that your faith is old and has specific requirements, but that does help show the court sincerity and consistency," said Blomberg, in a telephone interview. "Sincerity is important. When many faithful prisoners are denied a religious diet, they don't eat food that violates their faith -- they go hungry."
However, religious groups that once stood united when defending the national Religious Freedom Restoration Act have clashed in cases pitting religious liberty against what some now call "sexual liberty." While many support the rights of prisoners to follow the teachings of historic faiths, these coalitions have splintered when discussing the rights of public officials and business owners to follow ancient doctrines about marriage and sexuality.
Then there is the ongoing case of the Little Sisters of the Poor, a Catholic order that has clashed with the White House over Obamacare mandates.
The First Amendment principles are supposed to be the same, inside prison walls and in the public square, argued Blomberg.
"The most powerful government in the world doesn't need to force nuns to provide contraceptives and other forms of birth control in the health-care plans they offer to people who work in their ministries," he said. "Our government has plenty of other ways to deliver these services to those people -- other than forcing nuns to violate the teachings of their faith. …
"There is space enough in our culture to allow different people with different beliefs to live peaceably in the same land. We really think most Americans would agree with that statement."