ACLU Lawsuit Charges Georgia Kosher Laws Are Unconstitutional

Affiliate: ACLU of Georgia
August 6, 2009 12:00 am

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State Endorsement Of One Belief Over Others Violates Religious Freedom

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ATLANTA – The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Georgia today filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the Kosher Food Labeling Act. By mandating that any food sold as kosher in the state of Georgia must meet the “Orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements,” the challenged statute delegitimizes alternative interpretations of kosher adhered to in other Jewish communities.

The lawsuit was filed in Fulton County Superior Court on behalf of Shalom Lewis, rabbi of Congregation Etz Chaim in Cobb County who, as a conservative Jew, is unable to fulfill his rabbinical duties to supervise food establishments because his theological interpretation of the kosher laws differs from that of Orthodox Judaism.

“I don’t want to have to choose between abiding by state law and practicing my religion according to my beliefs,” Lewis said. “It is unfortunate that non-Orthodox rabbis in Georgia must make the moral and ethical decision to risk legal prosecution in order to fulfill their rabbinical duties. The two should not be incompatible in America, where everyone’s religious beliefs are to be respected.”

One of the most vital services that Lewis provides to his congregants is serving as their mashgiach, the Hebrew term for a person who supervises any type of food service establishment – including restaurants and grocery stores – to ensure that food is acceptably kosher. But because Lewis cannot certify the preparation of food in accordance with Orthodox Hebrew requirements, he is prohibited by law from serving as the mashgiach of any kosher food operation – a reality that jeopardizes his ability to fulfill his calling as a duly ordained rabbi of the Jewish faith and impedes his religious freedom. If Lewis were to violate the state’s kosher laws by supervising food establishments using a different interpretation of kosher than the law requires, the laws could be enforced against him, damaging his reputation and subjecting him, his congregation and others to criminal charges and fines.

“Having the state choose which rabbis are ‘legitimate’ and which are not puts many rabbis in a precarious position,” said Debbie Seagraves, Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “Congregations rely on their rabbis to provide the kind of religious guidance that this state law prohibits them from providing, unless they are Orthodox. The state of Georgia should not hold the power to define who is ‘official’ Jewish clergy. That is clearly a matter of faith, not the proper role of government.”

According to the ACLU’s lawsuit, the Kosher Food Labeling Act violates the religious liberty guarantees of both the U.S. and Georgia Constitutions by endorsing only “Orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements” and criminalizing the practices of the many people across the state who, while seeking kosher products, subscribe to interpretations of kosher that differ from those of Orthodox Jews.

“The challenged laws violate the fundamental pillars of religious liberty, endorsing one particular set of beliefs and impeding the free religious exercise of those who believe differently,” said Daniel Mach, Litigation Director for the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The government should never take sides in theological debates.”

Joining the ACLU of Georgia and the national ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief as co-counsel for Rabbi Lewis are attorneys at the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding LLP.

A copy of the ACLU’s complaint is available online at:

Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at:

Additional information about the ACLU of Georgia is available online at:

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