EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ramadan, Ei al-Fitr, and the First Amendment in Prison

While researching the Adnan Syed case, I became curious about why he was absent on January 19, 1999 due to "Observation of Religious Holiday." In 1999, Ramadan ended on January 17th, prompting me to wonder what religious holiday was observed on January 19th. It turns out the January 19th was Eid al-Fitr

Eid al-Fitr is a Muslim holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting (sawm). Eid is an Arabic word meaning "festivity", while Fiṭr means "to break fast"; and so the holiday symbolizes the breaking of the fasting period. It is celebrated after the end of the Islamic month of Ramadan, on the first day of Shawwal.

The observance of both Ramadan and Ei al-Fitr have led to some interesting First Amendment prison lawsuits, as is made clear by the opinion by the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin in Perez v. Frank, 2007 WL 1101285 (W.D.Wis. 2007).

In Perez

Juan Pérez, a Muslim prisoner incarcerated at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution in New Lisbon, Wisconsin, contend[ed] that defendant prison officials violated his rights under the First Amendment's free exercise clause and the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)...by prohibiting him from engaging in various religious prayer ceremonies and rituals.

Specifically, he claimed that the defendants

violated his rights under the establishment clause by depriving him of Halaal food on ‘Eid al-Fitr..., while providing special foods to non-Muslim inmates for their religious feast days and by depriving him of dates during Ramadan while providing special foods to inmates of other religions for their special observances

In response to the defendants' motion for summary judgment, Pérez 

produced evidence to show that on ‘Eid al Fitr, the prison served a meal consisting of pizza topped with green peppers, onions, meat and cheese, potato chips, salad with dressing, pineapple tidbits, bread, milk and butter. (Plaintiff had requested a feast containing halaal meats, dates, olives, figs, honey and lamb.) On Christmas Day 2004, inmates at the New Lisbon Correctional Institution were fed a chicken breast, smoked turkey, ham, cranberry sauce, dinner roll, gelatin with fruit cocktail and sweet potato pie, while in 2005, the Christmas menu included turkey ham, roast turkey and cranberry sauce.

The court could not find "that the difference was so significant that it constituted an establishment of religion by showing preference to Christianity over Islam."

This left Pérez's argument that the defendants violated his rights under the establishment clause by preventing him from eating dates during Ramadan." Muslims traditionally break the fast on Ramadan by eating dates because "[t]he Prophet...used to break his fast by eating dates before offering the Maghrib prayer, and if ripe dates were not available, he would substitute them with dried ones." 

In Pérez's case, however, it was

undisputed that plaintiff asked defendants for three dates daily with which to break his fast during the month of Ramadan. Defendants neither provided the dates nor offered plaintiff an alternate means of obtaining them. At the same time, defendants provided Wiccan and Christian inmates with small amounts of bread and juice to use in religious ceremonies.

The court assessed Pérez's claim under the test from Lemon v. Kurtzman, pursuant to which "a government policy or practice violates the establishment clause if (1) it has no secular purpose; (2) its primary effect advances or inhibits religion; or (3) it fosters an excessive entanglement with religion." And, according to the court, 

Defendants have failed to offer evidence providing a secular reason why providing plaintiff with dates would be more burdensome than providing Wiccan and Christain inmates with juice and bread. Without such a justification, defendant's rejection of plaintiff's request cannot survive the first part of the Lemon test.



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It's an absolute shame that cases like this aren't widespread - I believe from the quotes here that it's pretty clear that there was a first amendment violation there. If Christians and Wiccans are provided with food for religious services in prison, Muslims should be allowed theirs as well.

Posted by: Jordan | Apr 17, 2015 1:35:13 PM

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