July 28, 2008

Testing the Constitution over and over gain

It has been an issue that has been tested in the courts over and over again. Almost every level of the judicial system has at some point considered the rights of prisoners to kosher foods. The result has always been the same. The right to kosher food based on one’s religious beliefs is unshakable. The courts have ultimately decided that even in cases where budgets are not sufficient to pay for the food, the states must somehow come up with the money.

The most recent case was when the South Dakota Supreme Court ruled that a prison inmate serving a life sentence for murder can proceed with a lawsuit alleging prison officials violated his religious rights by changing the way kosher food is prepared for Jewish inmates. The high court's unanimous opinion reinstates Charles Sisney's lawsuit that seeks to require prison officials to resume the use of pre-packaged kosher meals. In two related cases where Sisney sought damages, the Supreme Court upheld the dismissal of nearly all of Sisney's claims.

Sisney pleaded guilty to first-degree murder in 1997 for the shooting death of his former girlfriend, Kathy Marie Cepek, in Sioux Falls. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole.

The question that repeatedly troubles me is why this issue is tested ad nauseum, whereas other cases of prisoners’ rights are decided without it being challenged repeatedly. Prison officials are clear about the enormous stress that the special treatment puts on their system. They speak of storing the special meals, refrigeration and heating issues and so forth. They also say that this causes unease amongst the fellow prisoners who often complain that they do not have the right to eat the ethnic meals that they enjoy. Bottom line is that this issue is a fundamental constitutionally guaranteed right that the courts have no choice but to uphold. In truth, it isn’t as much about the prisoners as it is about our system of government, guaranteed by our Constitution.