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When Kosher Isn't Kosher

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August 6, 2009

The State of Georgia’s Kosher Food Labeling Act (KFLA) mandates that any food labeled kosher in that state must be certified to be in accordance with “orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements.”

Which isn’t a problem, unless you’re a Reform or Conservative or other, non-Orthodox Jew in Georgia.

Today the ACLU and the ACLU of Georgia filed a lawsuit (PDF) against Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue, Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Commissioner of the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Tommy Irvin, charging that the KFLA discriminates against non-Orthodox Jewish communities by requiring adherence to Orthodox kosher standards.

Our client in the case is Shalom Lewis, Rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in Cobb County, who, as a Conservative Jew, can’t fulfill his rabbinical duties because the Conservative interpretation of kosher differs from that of Orthodox Judaism. One of the most important services Rabbi Lewis provides to his congregation is serving as its mashgiach, supervising and monitoring the kosher food operations. As he is Conservative, not Orthodox, Rabbi Lewis can’t certify kosher foods for his Conservative congregation under the Georgia statute.

If Rabbi Lewis were to follow his faith and certify products kosher according to Conservative standards, he would be violating state law, risking exposure to criminal fines and imprisonment.

Our lawsuit argues that the KFLA therefore impairs Rabbi Lewis’s religious freedom, violating the U.S. and state constitutions by endorsing Orthodox rules and requirements for kosher products and banning — indeed, criminalizing — all others. We’re asking the court to find the act unconstitutional and unenforceable.

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