Georgia law on kashrut prompts suit; law has parallel in Missouri


Is it kosher for a state agency to be the arbiter of what products meet the precise standards of Jewish dietary laws?

A rabbi in Georgia doesn’t think so and is challenging his state’s kosher law in court. A similar law in Missouri — unknown even to some in the Jewish community — could be the next legal target.

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The term kosher, meaning fit or proper, describes a complicated set of Jewish rules for eating and drinking.

Georgia is the latest state to confront a legal challenge of its kosher law. In both the Georgia and Missouri laws, kosher food is defined as that “sanctioned by the orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements,” and both include time behind bars for violators.

In the Georgia case, a Conservative rabbi says he certifies items as kosher for his congregation, but because he is not an Orthodox Jew he’s technically not allowed under the state statute. The American Civil Liberties Union filed the suit in August on his behalf, arguing the law violates the state and federal constitutional rights to freedom of religion. The case argues the law violates the free exercise, establishment and equal-protection clauses.

The lawsuit argues if a case was brought under Georgia’s law, courts would have to interpret Jewish law to figure out whether the person is guilty.

“The requirement that a civil court interpret and/or apply Jewish law constitutes unlawful entanglement,” the suit argues.

The parties have agreed to a six-month stay in the case to see if the Georgia Legislature will fix the law, said Daniel Mach, director of litigation at the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief in Washington D.C.

Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU’s Eastern Missouri chapter, said he hasn’t heard complaints about Missouri’s kosher law, but he said it appears to have the same constitutional problems as Georgia’s. “I’m looking into it,” he said. “It raises serious issues.”

State Rep. Jake Zimmerman, a Conservative Jewish attorney, doesn’t want to wait around for a lawsuit to fix the problem.

“If my Conservative rabbi wants to be able to certify the kosher kitchen in his synagogue, I don’t think it’s the state of Missouri’s job to tell him whether he can or can’t do that,” Zimmerman said. “It clearly is not the state of Missouri’s job to say whose version of kosher is the correct version.”

Zimmerman, D-Olivette, didn’t know of the law until Missouri Lawyers Weekly alerted him to the Georgia litigation and the Missouri statute.

Now he plans to offer legislation next year to clarify Missouri’s law. He expects to visit with Jewish community leaders as well as the ACLU to figure out the best wording. One potential solution, he said, could be to reword the law to simply make it illegal to label and sell food as kosher when it’s not certified as such by any branch of Judaism.

Rabbi Carnie Rose, of Congregation B’nai Amoona in Creve Coeur, said he was aware of the law but continues to monitor and certify his synagogue’s food as kosher.

“By and large we Conservative rabbis who function in this realm basically ignore it,” said Rose.

Rose doesn’t certify shops or restaurants in Missouri, largely because no one has asked him to, he said. But that was among his duties when he led congregations in New York and overseas.

Rose said he interprets the term “orthodox” in the Missouri law to refer generally to historic Jewish principles, not to the Orthodox Jewish movement. Still, he said the law needs clarification. Rose is the rabbi of the synagogue Zimmerman attends.

“I’m concerned about how it’s crafted,” Rose said. “I’m also somewhat concerned about the state in general intervening in these kinds of matters.”

Missouri passed its kosher law in 1925, but neither state health officials nor the attorney general’s office could point to a case where it has been enforced or knew of complaints about noncompliance. Still, if someone is convicted of passing off something as kosher when it’s not, that person could face criminal sanctions of up to a $500 fine and up to a year in prison.

Zimmerman and Rose said they understand the legitimate interest in making sure kosher consumers aren’t duped.

“It’s a very sensitive subject,” Orthodox Jew and kosher supervisor Michael Zeffren said while applying coarse salt to legs of beef at Kohn’s Kosher Market. “The standards go the entire gamut. … Just because a rabbi puts his name on it, you don’t know exactly what the standard is.”

Rabbi Zvi Zuravin, the Vaad’s executive director, said he was also unaware Missouri had a state kosher law. The Vaad follows Orthodox standards, so his group’s certifications of restaurants, grocers and caterers comply with the law anyway. Zuravin said the Jewish community in St. Louis works together well, and his group has supervised kosher events for Conservative Jews as well.

“I don’t want there to be two standards,” Zuravin said. “If we’re all able to live with one standard, why not?”

The states of Louisiana, Michigan, Texas and Wisconsin, according to the national ACLU, also have similar kosher laws.

Standards of kashrut

Food made at B’nai Amoona, Rose said, generally meets the Orthodox kosher standards for ingredients and preparation. But he allows the kosher supervisor to drive a car to services on the Sabbath, he said, something an Orthodox certifier would not accept. Also, he said, Conservatives look beyond the food and its handling to how a supplier treats employees and animals, and if that conduct is inappropriate, the food can’t be deemed kosher.

Personally, Zimmerman said he follows kosher rules at Passover and other times of the year, but not daily. He recalled as a child hearing his rabbi complain that St. Louis lacks a Conservative kosher certifier.

The Jewish population in the St. Louis region is about 60,000, among them about 700 Orthodox families, while the Kansas City area has a Jewish community of about 20,000, the areas’ Jewish organizations estimate. But many congregations in the Kansas City area, along with its kosher certification group, are in Kansas, which has no comparable law.

Zimmerman said he believes the Missouri law could stand if a court construes it to mean a crime occurs only if someone presents their food as Orthodox kosher when it’s not. But he said the law should be clarified regardless.

Georgia is not the first state to face such a legal challenge. Courts have struck down kosher laws in New York and New Jersey. In response, those states moved instead to a full disclosure law, explained the ACLU’s Daniel Mach. That law basically says anyone can call anything kosher, but they must explain how they define kosher. That’s done with a sign in the store saying who certified the products, by registering their standards with the state, or just spelling out on the labels their ingredients and processing. That way, consumers can decide for themselves.

“As long as you’re being truthful and accurate in your disclosure, the state has no more say,” said the ACLU’s Mach. “The state should not take sides in theological debates.”

Reprinted with permission of Missouri Lawyers Weekly.