Blank Rome Pro Bono Litigation Team Obtains Preliminary Injunction Protecting Orthodox Jewish Prisoner’s Religious Rights under the First Amendment
A Blank Rome pro bono litigation team obtained a preliminary injunction on April 21, 2020, on behalf of Zion’Eliyah Yah’Torah, an Orthodox Jewish prisoner, at the New Jersey State Prison who alleged that his First Amendment rights were violated by the prison’s refusal to provide him adequate access to Kosher oil, which he uses to anoint himself during his daily prayers.
For nearly 11 years, the prison has denied the plaintiff access to the oil he needs to pray—a mere ¾ ounces per day. Yet, the prison’s current policy only allows prisoners to purchase up to one ounce of prayer oil per month; and the only oil available for purchase is not Kosher. Thus, the current policy effectively prevents the plaintiff from praying altogether. The prison claims that its policy prevents bartering, weaponization, and contraband, all of which are speculative and not based on any facts in the record. Indeed, for a brief period before the current policy, the prison allowed the plaintiff to purchase Kosher oil on an as-needed basis. Notably, there was no evidence that the plaintiff bartered oil, weaponized oil, or obtained contraband during that time.
The plaintiff filed a pro se complaint, and in 2019 the court appointed Blank Rome to represent him pro bono. After developing a factual record, the Blank Rome team moved to enjoin the prison’s current policy and to reinstate the policy allowing the plaintiff to order Kosher prayer oil on an as-needed basis. In granting the preliminary injunction, the district court observed that “[p]rison walls do not form a barrier separating prison inmates from the protections of the Constitution.” The district court held that the plaintiff showed a likelihood of success on the merits under the Supreme Court’s test in Turner v. Safley, which requires that a prison regulation must be reasonably related to a legitimate penological interest. In this case, the district court adopted the plaintiff’s arguments and found that the prison’s justifications for its current policy lacked support and were refuted by the record. Moreover, the district court found that the prison’s current policy is causing the plaintiff to “endur[e] serious First Amendment harms.”
As a result of the preliminary injunction, the plaintiff will be permitted to order Kosher prayer oil during the lawsuit, thereby restoring the First Amendment rights he has long been denied.
For more information on this case, including media commentary from Judge Orlofsky, please read He May Be a Convicted Carjacker Doing Time. But a Judge Rules He Has Rights to His Rites (NJ.com, April 27, 2020).