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St. Clair County Jail implements new policy for religious diets

prison bars
The St. Clair County Jail reached a settlement with Muslim groups to end its policy of requiring a religious test for religious meals.

The St. Clair County Jail has installed new procedures for inmates who request religious diets.

Until now, inmates who wanted religious diets were required to pass a written exam that tested their knowledge of their faith.

A lawsuit filed last year by the Council on American-Islamic Relations claimed that policy was unconstitutional.

The case concerned Aaron Utley, a Muslim man and a former inmate at the jail, who was denied a Halal diet – in keeping with Islamic tradition – after failing a test on Islam.

But "the government may not test knowledge of faith," said Lena Masri, a staff attorney for the Michigan Chapter of CAIR, who added that the religious tests were so difficult that most inmates were failing them.

The tests have now been eliminated.

Instead, new procedures in the jail will give inmates different avenues to prove their faith.

For example, "an inmate could provide letters from their clergyman that attest to their faith," Masri said. "Or (the inmate) could provide ... jail logs that show that they participate in certain services with that particular faith."

She said the new policy is an improvement, calling it "much more accommodating of all religious backgrounds."

"It completely takes away any right of the jail to question inmates about their knowledge of their faith," she said.

Masri said she also receives regular complaints that Muslims in Michigan state prisons are not provided with adequate nutrition when they fast during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

– Jacob Axelrad, Michigan Radio Newsroom