California Court Considers Salami, Festivus

Photo: Wikimedia Commons


There are plenty of flaws with the California criminal justice system; actually, it can be pretty awful. But it’s not all bad news. The OC Register reports that earlier this year, an Orange County inmate successfully persuaded a Superior Court judge to accomodate his special religious diet:

Festivus may only come around once a year…but longtime county inmate Malcolm Alarmo King was able to celebrate it three times a day while locked up at the Theo Lacy jail in Orange.

King’s quest for a healthier eating option while behind bars ended with a county lawyer forced to research the origin of Festivus and its traditions and a Superior Court judge recognizing the holiday – which lodged its place in pop culture on an episode of “Seinfeld” – as a legitimate religion.

At issue was King’s objection to eating salami, which Orange County feeds its inmates. Key quote:

The Sheriff’s Department interviewed King about his religious leanings in May. When asked what his religion was, he answered “Healthism.”

A couple of quick points here: 1) Salami is horrible. More importantly, 2) this kind of thing actually happens all the time.

The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA!) stipulates that authorities can only evaluate the sincerity, rather than the validity, of an inmate’s beliefs. As a result, thousands of inmates who aren’t really Jewish request and receive kosher meals each year simply by claiming that it’s a religious requirement. As Seattle Weekly reported in 2006, “interviews with Washington prisoners who have declared themselves Jewish and are receiving kosher food have yet to yield an actual Jew.”

Sometimes, this can reach the level of farce—like the 2008 case of Norman Lee Toler, a Missouri inmate who won the right to receive kosher meals despite having been disciplined by prison authorities for decorating his cell with photos of Hitler.

Still there are limits. In Strope v. Cline, “a Kansas federal district court rejected an inmate’s claim that his rights under the free exercise clause and RLUIPA were violated when authorities removed beef, tomatoes and cucumbers from the ‘common fare’ diet and frequently served peanut butter.” Actually, lawsuits over peanut butter are quite common.

I’d also refer you to the the landmark case, Stanko v. Patton, in which a federal court tossed out the complaint from a white supremacist who said his faith (the Church of the Creator), required a balanced diet of fresh fruit and nuts. This was initially reversed (pdf) by an appeals court, but the district court had the last, exquisite word: “Hate is not a religion and jails do not have to provide nuts and fresh fruits to satisfy the whims of haters.”

Haters gonna hate.

DOES IT FEEL LIKE POLITICS IS AT A BREAKING POINT?

Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

It sure feels that way to me, and here at Mother Jones, we’ve been thinking a lot about what journalism needs to do differently, and how we can have the biggest impact.

We kept coming back to one word: corruption. Democracy and the rule of law being undermined by those with wealth and power for their own gain. So we're launching an ambitious Mother Jones Corruption Project to do deep, time-intensive reporting on systemic corruption, and asking the MoJo community to help crowdfund it.

We aim to hire, build a team, and give them the time and space needed to understand how we got here and how we might get out. We want to dig into the forces and decisions that have allowed massive conflicts of interest, influence peddling, and win-at-all-costs politics to flourish.

It's unlike anything we've done, and we have seed funding to get started, but we're looking to raise $500,000 from readers by July when we'll be making key budgeting decisions—and the more resources we have by then, the deeper we can dig. If our plan sounds good to you, please help kickstart it with a tax-deductible donation today.

Thanks for reading—whether or not you can pitch in today, or ever, I'm glad you're with us.

Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our newsletters

Subscribe and we'll send Mother Jones straight to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate

Share your feedback: We’re planning to launch a new version of the comments section. Help us test it.