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October 11, 2005

The American Civil Liberties Union Foundation of Colorado (ACLU) announced today that its attorneys had filed suit against the Colorado Department of Corrections (DOC) on behalf of Timothy Sheline, a Jewish prisoner whose kosher food diet was revoked for one year as punishment for allegedly violating a minor dining hall rule.

According to the lawsuit, the DOC has recognized that Mr. Sheline’s sincerely-held religious beliefs require that he maintain a kosher diet. The DOC was providing that diet until last spring, when Sheline was notified that his right to receive a kosher food tray in the prison dining hall had been revoked.

The lawsuit states that Sheline’s kosher diet was revoked because a guard in the dining hall reported that Sheline was caught taking two packages of butter and two packages of salad dressing from his food tray and putting them in his pocket.

Since his kosher diet was revoked in April, the lawsuit states, Sheline has been struggling to survive on a severely-restricted diet of the few kosher foods he is able to purchase at the prison canteen with his meager funds. As a result, he has lost over 30 pounds on a diet consisting almost entirely of peanut butter and crackers.

“The Constitution protects the right of prisoners to freely exercise and practice their religious beliefs,” said Mark Silverstein, ACLU Legal Director. “Congress recently strengthened the legal protections available to prisoners when it enacted the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, (RLUIPA). That statute places a heavy burden of proof on the government to justify any restrictions on religious practice.”

“It took extensive litigation several years ago to force the DOC to provide kosher meals to Jewish prisoners whose religious practice requires them,” Silverstein continued. “Prisoners can now receive religious diets, but the DOC claims, unjustifiably, that it has the right to revoke those diets on the basis of alleged violations of minor dining hall rules. The DOC certainly has a right to enforce its dining hall rules and to sanction prisoners who violate them. But it cannot do so by infringing and burdening the right of prisoners to practice their religion.”

The DOC revoked Mr. Sheline’s entitlement to a kosher diet on the basis of Administrative Regulation 1550-06, which sets out procedures for granting and revoking religious diets. The ACLU contends that the diet-revocation provisions violate the right of prisoners to religious freedom and due process of law.

The lawsuit, Sheline v. Ortiz, was filed in United States District Court in Denver.  

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