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Messianic Jewish Inmates Claim Discrimination

From The Columbus Dispatch
Original article available here.

Messianic Jews believe in Jesus. But they still consider themselves as faithful to Judaism as anyone else. They want to eat kosher meals, avoiding pork and shellfish and not mixing meat and dairy products. But if they are inmates in Ohio prisons, they are out of luck. Kosher meals are a privilege afforded only to traditional Jews.

In Ohio prisons, Messianic Jews are labeled Protestants.

At least four prisoners at Richland Correctional Institution in Mansfield have filed grievances, alleging discrimination by a Christian-led prison system.

They also contend that they're denied a consistent place to worship on their Sabbath, which lasts from Friday at sundown to Saturday at sundown.

"This grievance is all about discrimination of a religious sect, and the conspiracy for the deprivation of rights secured by the Constitution," wrote Richland inmate Ronald Lutz, 64. He is serving 17 years for attempted theft, forgery, extortion and other crimes.

The prison argues that kosher meals aren't a basic tenet of faith for Messianic Jews. And with a tight budget, the prison system is opting to feed them the cheaper non-kosher meals.

Federal law says the government cannot impede the religious exercise of an inmate unless those restrictions support a compelling governmental interest. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that law in 2005 when it came under attack by Ohio prison officials.

Nobody is being discriminated against, said the Rev. Gary Sims, religious-services administrator for the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction.

He revoked kosher privileges for Messianic Jews in 2004 after consulting with Messianic Jewish rabbis, who told him the special meals weren't essential.

Prison budgets are tight, Sims said. A non-kosher meal costs about 95 cents. A kosher one is between $5 and $6.

The Messianic Jews at the Richland prison have to meet on Sundays because there's no volunteer to serve them on their Sabbath, and the regular chaplains are off, Sims said.

The prison system is re-evaluating its religious-accommodation policies, said Sims, who couldn't say whether any of the rules regarding Messianic Judaism might change.

Rabbi Howard Silverman of Beth Messiah Congregation in Gahanna, a Messianic congregation, acknowledges that although keeping kosher is an important tradition, it is not a law for Messianic Jews.

Sims doesn't know how many Messianic Jews are among Ohio's 50,000 inmates because they're classified as Protestants.

The inmates have an ally on the outside. The Rev. Mark Butler teaches three Bible classes a week at the Marion prison and said inmates there have the same complaints. Butler practices Messianic Judaism.

"It feels like a part of them is being denied," Butler said.

The Messianic Jews receive kosher meals on Jewish holidays, Sims said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio and the Rutherford Institute, a Virginia civil-liberties organization, are investigating the Messianic Jews' complaints.

But for now, the Messianic Jews must eat what's on their plates.


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