Inmate’s Fight for Vegan Food Lands in 11th Circuit – Courthouse News Service
ATLANTA (CN) — An attorney for a Muslim inmate who says his
civil rights were violated when a Georgia prison refused to provide
him with a vegan diet conforming to his religious beliefs asked an 11th Circuit
panel Friday to reinstate his case.
Marquise Robbins, who is serving a 25-year sentence for
voluntary manslaughter, gang participation, and attempted murder, filed a federal
pro se complaint in 2015 against the warden and food service director of
Valdosta State Prison.
He claims the prison officials violated his First and Eighth
Amendment rights by failing to provide him with properly prepared vegan meals
that conform to his religious dietary needs. He also alleges the inadequate
meals violated his rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized
Due to his Islamic beliefs, Robbins says he cannot consume
non-halal animal byproducts or meat. For a meat to be certified halal under
Islamic law, it cannot be a forbidden cut — such as meat from hindquarters — or
come from forbidden animals, such as pigs.
To ensure that his religious beliefs were not violated,
Robbins requested and was approved to receive vegan meals while incarcerated.
But in his lawsuit, he called the meals “meager, improperly prepared and at times
He claims his vegan meals were not kept separate from
non-vegan meals, causing them to become contaminated under his religious
guidelines. He also says coffee served to inmates was contaminated with
dishwashing chemicals and ice was contaminated with insects.
Robbins says he was faced with the choice to either eat food
that did not conform with his religious beliefs or suffer malnourishment. He
claims to have lost 15 pounds and suffered headaches, fatigue, abdominal pains
and dizziness due to a lack of adequate food.
He was prescribed multivitamins and supplemental meals by
prison medical staff to combat his malnutrition, but alleges the supplemental
meals still contained food he could not eat due to his dietary restrictions.
In August 2016, Senior U.S. District Judge W. Louis Sands granted the prison officials’ motions to dismiss Robbins’ complaint, adopting a magistrate judge’s recommendation finding that the inmate failed to specifically allege that the vegan meals he received interfered with his religious beliefs.
The magistrate judge also found that Robbins failed to
allege that the prison officials “knowingly provided less than reasonably
adequate food to [him] in his requested vegan meals” and did not prove
that his “religious beliefs have been substantially burdened by the
provision of what he has deemed to be diluted, unsatisfactory vegan
Attorney Sarah Sternlieb of Holwell Shuster & Goldberg,
arguing Friday morning on behalf of Robbins, asked a three-judge 11th Circuit
panel to reverse the district court’s dismissal or remand the case to allow
Robbins to amend his complaint.
“Robbins was put to a First Amendment choice because he
was not given enough to eat. [He was] forced to choose to either violate his
religion by eating contaminated food or starve,” Sternlieb said. “On Saturdays,
the meals he received were five PB&J sandwiches which he couldn’t eat
because he couldn’t eat jelly because it is contaminated with pork products.
The medical meals he was provided with contained milk and meat so he couldn’t
eat them either.”
“If he ate the food, how could it be physical
infliction of pain and suffering under the Eighth Amendment?” Chief U.S.
Circuit Judge Ed Carnes asked.
“We know he experienced health effects. Even if he ate
the food, it shows that it wasn’t enough, it was inadequate and that would violate
the Eighth Amendment,” Sternlieb responded.
But Assistant Attorney General Deborah Gore, arguing on
behalf of the Georgia prison
officials, told the panel that since Robbins was transferred out of Valdosta
State Prison in 2016, his complaints against the Valdosta officials are moot.
Senior U.S. Circuit Judge Raymond Clevenger III pointed out
that the constitutional claims in Robbins’ case could still stand.
“We have three months in which there’s an allegation of
contamination to such an extent he was forced to make a choice on his religion.
He was being put to a choice, saying ‘If I eat this I’m not going to the
promised land, but if I don’t eat this I’ll starve.’ Why is there not a First
Amendment question here?” Clevenger asked.
“He hasn’t alleged that he hasn’t been able to eat any
meal. He hasn’t pleaded that,” Gore responded. “He says his trays were placed
next to non-vegan trays, he says his religious beliefs require him not to eat
jelly when he doesn’t know how the animal was slain… He says the choice I was
put to was starvation and malnutrition or eat[ing] a non-vegan meal.”
“You’re saying he had to make a choice based on
religion,” Clevenger pointed out.
“He does,” Gore replied.
“Isn’t that enough?” Clevenger asked.
Clevenger and Carnes were joined on the panel by Senior U.S.
Circuit Judge Julie Carnes.
The panel did not indicate when it will reach a decision in