When Festivus was recognized as a real religion
Three years ago, an inmate in California and his lawyer convinced a judge that the Seinfeld-inspired holiday Festivus was a legitimate religious activity. The story made national headlines, but it also contained a few lessons about the legal system—and kosher food.
The incident involving Malcolm Alarmo King, a California inmate who hated salami, was mostly finished when the Orange County Register reported it on December 10, 2010. It became a national item the next day, when newswires picked up the story by writer Kimberley Edds, who researched the tale as part of a blog that reported on how taxpayer dollars are spent.
Edds said that King was detained on drug charges in April 2010, and as a fitness buff and model, he objected to a diet in county jail that was heavy on processed salami, and light on protein.
Initially, King was allowed to avoid the salami, and get double portions of high-protein kosher meals, under a law that involved the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. But when he was soon asked by jail officials in May 2010 for a religious justification for the kosher food, King said he was an adherent to "healthism," a term his attorney later acknowledged King made up.
Undaunted, King still wanted his kosher meals, and when he appeared again before Judge Derek G. Johnson and pleaded guilty to a drug charge, this time the judge asked for a religious justification.
King's attorney, Fred Thiagarajah, later told Edds that he was asked by the judge to name a religion. "I said Festivus," Thiagarajah said.
Festivus was made famous as a focus of a "Seinfeld" episode where the holiday was made up by a George Costanza's father to protest the commercialism of the holiday season.
"Court orders that the defendant is to receive a high protein no salami diet three times per day for 'Festivism,' " Judge Johnson ruled in May 2010.
It's unknown how much longer the judge's order remained in effect. King's original sentence was up in October 2010, but he was still in detention months later awaiting a deportation hearing. Sometime between May 2010 and October 2010, county officials had the decision recognizing Festivus as a religious exemption overturned.
In the days following the Orange County Register report, a county official released more details about the King incident.
"People picked up on it pretty quick and said this wasn't right," said Commander Dave Wilson of the Orange County Sheriff's Department told the Los Angeles Times.
Wilson said officials believed that King "did not hold a sincere religious belief that requires a restrictive kosher diet," and Judge Johnson's court order was overturned after a few months.
Thiagarajah also spoke to the New York Post about the incident and the judge's decision.
"I don't think he had ever seen 'Seinfeld,' but the judge told me he needed a religion to put down on the order," Thiagarajah said. "I'm not sure why it popped into my head, but in truth I think Festivus does constitute a legitimate religion. More people subscribe to Festivus than to so-called legitimate religions like Zoroastrianism."
Commander Wilson told the Post that jail officials appealed to a higher authority, Wikipedia, to research Festivism.
"This guy doesn't need a kosher diet for Festivus," Wilson said. "But any inmate is free to observe the holiday. We don't have Festivus poles, but plenty of our housing locations have bars in them."
The incident with King focused attention on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.
The act says that "No government shall impose a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person residing in or confined to an institution," and it defines religious exercise as "any exercise of religion, whether or not compelled by, or central to, a system of religious belief."
In the case of King, there are some interesting parts of his Festivism claim. In the "Seinfeld" episode about Festivus, the meal is observed once a year, not three times a day. It is on December 23rd, before the airing of grievances and some wrestling matches, and the meal itself seems to involve meat loaf and spaghetti.
So on the surface, the link between kosher meals and Festivus seems weak.
But the issue of kosher meals and prisoners is still being hashed out in court, in a serious way.
Currently, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty is representing Bruce Rich, an Orthodox Jewish prison inmate in Florida who had been denied a request for kosher meals.
The Becket Fund says that inmates in at least 35 states and the federal government get kosher diets in prison or jail. Florida ended the practice in 2007. In 2012, the Justice Department sued Florida over the policy, and the cases are in the federal court system.
After a May 2013 federal court decision, Florida said it would provide kosher meals during the litigation process.
And that leads to another interesting angle in the King case, where he might have had a stronger argument about needing kosher food if he claimed he followed Judaism, and not Festivism.
For years, critics have said that prisoners who have wanted kosher meals have claimed to be Jewish, when they aren't.
For example, The Jewish Press in February 2013 the prison officials in Pennsylvania were seeing spending hikes as more inmates demanded the meals.
Scott Bomboy is the editor in chief of the National Constitution Center.
Philadelphia's National Constitution Center is the first and only nonprofit, nonpartisan institution devoted to the most powerful vision of freedom ever expressed: the U.S. Constitution. Constitution Daily, the Center's blog, offers smart commentary and conversation about constitutional issues in the news, drawing insights from America's history and a variety of expert contributors.