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August 10, 2023

Lawsuit Challenges the Department of Correction Over Denial of Kosher Meals in D.C.  

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The ACLU of the District of Columbia today filed a federal lawsuit on behalf of Riley Benjamin against three officials of the D.C. Department of Corrections (DOC) for their unlawful refusal to provide Mr. Benjamin and other Jewish individuals in their custody with kosher meals absent external verification of their Jewish faith. DOC’s external verification practice requires confirmation of a person’s Jewish faith from a synagogue, rabbi, or through a letter of conversion before providing a religious dietary accommodation. The complaint charges that DOC's practice places an excessive and undue burden on these individuals, infringing on their religious rights under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.  

The DOC’s external religious verification practice prevents Mr. Benjamin and other Jews in custody from engaging in an important component of exercising their religion. The lawsuit alleges that Christian or Muslim individuals are not required to provide external verification of their faith to receive religious accommodations. The DOC officials named as defendants in today’s lawsuit are Reverend Nicole Colbert, Chaplain Jimmie Allen, and Deputy Director Jacqueline Williams. 

“My Jewish faith is one of the few things that has sustained me during this tough time in my life while I’ve been locked up,” said Mr. Benjamin. “It’s discriminatory and wrong for Reverend Colbert and Chaplain Allen, who are people of faith themselves, to deny me the opportunity to keep kosher by imposing proof requirements that don’t apply to people of other religions.”  

The lawsuit, filed as a class action, primarily seeks a court order to prohibit DOC officials from imposing requirements on Jewish people in or soon to be in their custody to provide external verification of their religion as a condition for approving their kosher meal requests. The lawsuit also asks the court to require DOC to supply kosher meals to Jewish individuals who request them based on their sincere desire to maintain kosher dietary practices as a part of the practice of their faith.  

"The right to practice one’s religion is deeply embedded in our country’s values and laws,” said Laura Follansbee, a legal fellow at the ACLU-D.C. and counsel for Mr. Benjamin. “D.C. Jail officials’ practice of denying kosher meal requests to Jewish people unless they can provide third-party proof of their religion, either through a rabbi or a formal letter of conversion, violates federal law and ignores the deeply personal nature of faith and spirituality."  

In addition to a court order that DOC drops its external verification requirement, Mr. Benjamin’s lawsuit seeks compensation for the denial of his kosher meal requests and, more broadly, to set a precedent that protects the right of Jewish people and individuals of all faiths to obtain religious accommodations. 

Today’s case, Benjamin v. Colbert, was filed in federal district court for the District of Columbia. The complaint is online