Justice judge court gavel scales

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit on Monday sided with a Colorado state prisoner who argued that inedible vegan meals were an infringement on his constitutional exercise of religious beliefs.

Jerry Blair is an inmate and a Buddhist who followed a vegan diet for five years. Blair alleged that while at Sterling Correctional Facility, an employee changed his meals to only include pinto beans and steamed rice, in contrast to another vegan prisoner who received a wider variety of foods. Blair developed gout, purportedly because of the overabundance of beans.

After a transfer to the Colorado State Prison, the facility introduced a vegan patty, which Blair alleged was a “punitive food” that was inedible and smelled badly. Eating the patty reportedly caused him gastrointestinal distress, vomiting, gas and diarrhea. The prison served Blair this meal on the majority of days, and his only alternative was to buy other vegan food from the prison or avoid eating.

In 2017, Blair filed a lawsuit alleging violations of his First, Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, including his free exercise of religion and his equal protection under the laws. He also sued on the grounds of the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which prevents undue governmental burdens on incarcerated individuals’ religious activities.

“We have long recognized that prisoners have the right under both the First Amendment and RLUIPA to a diet that conforms to their sincerely held religious beliefs,” wrote circuit Judge Joel M. Carson III for the three-judge panel.

A district court dismissed Blair’s claims because he had not shown that the vegan diet provided “substantially burdened” his exercise of his religion. The circuit judges found that because Blair only stated one incidence of getting sick from the Sterling prison’s diet of beans and rice and because he was transferred three days after getting gout, he did not have a First Amendment claim there.

However, Carson found that the vegan patty forced Blair to choose between following his religion and incurring a penalty — the lack of food. That, said Carson, was not “merely an inconvenience” or related to a legitimate penological purpose.

“Defendants here have not given a reason for allegedly impinging on Blair’s First Amendment free exercise rights by including inedible or unhealthy meals in his vegan religious diet,” he wrote.

The circuit panel sent the case back to district court to hear the First Amendment and RLUIPA claims. It dismissed the Eighth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment allegations for being too vague.

The case is Jerry Blair v. Rick Raemisch, et al.

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