By Jane Sutton
MIAMI (Reuters) - Hundreds of Florida prisoners have been forced to choose between starving or violating their religious beliefs since the state stopped offering kosher meals in its prisons, the U.S. Justice Department said in a lawsuit.
The federal government filed suit against the Florida Department of Corrections in U.S. District Court in Miami on Tuesday, accusing the state of violating prisoners' religious rights by ending its kosher meal service in 2007.
"Because there is pending litigation, we are not able to make any comments," a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections said on Friday.
Florida holds more than 100,000 prisoners at 146 prisons, work camps and work-release centers and has an annual corrections budget of $2.4 billion.
Until 2007, prisoners who wanted kosher meals were assigned to one of 13 facilities, where about 250 at a time opted for meals prepared under Jewish dietary guidelines.
Those rules, which exclude pork and avoid mixing meat and dairy, also satisfy or exceed the food preparation requirements for other faiths, and the participants included Muslims and Seventh-day Adventists, according to a study group commissioned in 2007 to advise the Florida Department of Corrections.
That Religious Dietary Study Group, which included a rabbi, an imam and legal experts, said the additional expense of providing kosher meals to 250 prisoners was about $146,000 a year. It warned that ending the kosher meal program could violate the law by denying inmates the right to exercise their religious obligations.
"He may either eat the non-kosher food and fail to obey his religious laws or not eat the non-kosher food and starve," the study group said.
Florida ignored the advice and ended the system-wide kosher meal program in 2007. Since 2010, it has provided kosher meals only to about a dozen prisoners at one facility near Miami, but that program is only open to prisoners who are at least 59 and eligible for assignment to a work squad.
The Justice Department lawsuit said consuming a kosher diet is a fundamental tenet of Judaism and other religions practiced by Florida prisoners.
"By refusing to offer kosher meals, the Florida Department of Corrections forces hundreds of its prisoners to violate their core religious beliefs on a daily basis," it said.
The Justice Department said the federal prisons and those in most other states do offer kosher meals to all prisoners with a religious basis for keeping kosher.
Florida prisoners can choose between meat and meatless entrees and can request vegan meals. Florida prisons also offer diets tailored to special medical needs, such as a prenatal diet, a liquid diet or a diet for those with kidney impairment, but none of the options is kosher.
The case is 12-cv-22958-PAS
(Reporting by Jane Sutton; Editing by Sandra Maler)