Is Fish Meat? Prison Forces Vegetarian to Eat It
Fish is meat. Many servers I’ve had at restaurants did not understand this, and recommended fish when I asked if their menus included vegetarian options.
More importantly, the state of Connecticut does not understand this. Its Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Institution serves an incarcerated vegetarian, Howard Cosby, three dinners of fish a week, no substitutions.
Cosby is a practicing Buddhist of a branch that forbids eating meat. The 35-year-old must have come to this religion, which calls for non-violence, later in life, given that he is serving a 19 and a half year sentence for sexual assault. Not the most sympathetic poster-boy, but nonetheless, anyone interested in keeping government out of people’s religious beliefs — or in the integrity of the English language, basic biology education, or making it easier to be vegetarian — has reason to back him up on this.
A federal statute, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, prohibits prisons from imposing substantial burdens on inmates’ religious observance. Courts across the country have relied on this law to rule that prisons must provide vegetarian food to some prisoners, and that fish flesh is not vegetarian. If it were, we wouldn’t need a different word for people who eat fish but no other animals. (If you’re wondering, the word is pescetarian.)
Animal Blawg notes that the Catholic Church, like Connecticut’s Department of Prisons, categorizes fish as not-meat, which is where the tradition of eating it on Fridays and during Lent comes from. Catholics are supposed to deprive themselves on those days, and some people think forgoing meat is a deprivation. Clearly they have never seen an Isa Chandra Moskowitz cookbook.
Where do people come up with the idea that some corpses are not meat? Maybe there is a causal effect between the Catholic doctrine and the prison’s menu, but I think it is more likely that the confusion of the Church, prison officials and waiters comes from the same place. That place could be the enormous differences between fishes and the other animals Americans and Europeans commonly eat, like chickens, cows and pigs. Fishes don’t do the things we expect of those animals: they can’t breathe air; they don’t walk on legs; most of them make no sounds that we can hear; and they aren’t warm-blooded. Ergo, not meat!
As far as the free exercise of religion goes, the problem isn’t that the prison’s meal-planning makes no sense. It is that government should not dictate how a religion defines its beliefs.
Cosby sought help from PETA, which has sent a letter to the prison. The organization notes that one judge chastised prison officials for refusing to provide an inmate with vegan meals, saying, “why make a federal case out of it? … [W]hat the State did here, digging in its heels and saying no, seems quite unreasonable to me.”
We’ll see how reasonable Connecticut is.
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