Atlanta, GA – Governor Sonny Purdue signed into law a bill repealing the unconstitutional Kosher Food Labeling Act and replacing it with a new law mandating that consumers be fully informed about the standards under which any kosher food product is certified as being kosher. The bill, signed Thursday, was prompted by an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and was passed by the Georgia legislature last month.
The previous Kosher Food Labeling Act required that any food sold as kosher in the state meet “Orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements,” delegitimizing alternative interpretations of kosher adhered to in other Jewish communities. The new law no longer institutionalizes an official definition of kosher and instead requires that all food and food establishments represented as being kosher clearly disclose to consumers the practices and standards by which the food was prepared.
“The state should never be in the position of deciding which religious beliefs are ‘legitimate’ and which are not,” said Debbie Seagraves, Executive Director of the ACLU of Georgia. “The state legislature did the right thing by making clear that the power to define what is religiously acceptable should never rest with the government. These are personal religious decisions.”
The ACLU, ACLU of Georgia and cooperating attorneys from King & Spalding filed a lawsuit last year on behalf of Rabbi Shalom Lewis of Congregation Etz Chaim in Cobb County challenging the constitutionality of the Kosher Food Labeling Act.
“The Georgia legislature is to be commended for creating a law that affirms our nation’s bedrock American principle of respecting everyone’s religious beliefs,” said Rabbi Lewis who, as a Conservative Jew, had been unable to lawfully fulfill his rabbinical duties to supervise food establishments because his theological interpretation of the kosher laws differ from that of Orthodox Judaism. “It has been very gratifying working with the Orthodox community to achieve this result, which provides protection to consumers by enabling them to make informed choices about the food they buy and fosters enhanced respect and mutuality within the community.”
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, grocery stores and caterers – to ensure that food is acceptably kosher. But because Lewis cannot certify the preparation of food in accordance with Orthodox Hebrew requirements, he has been prohibited by law from serving as the mashgiach of any kosher food operation – a fact that jeopardized his ability to fulfill his calling as a duly ordained rabbi of the Jewish faith and impeded his religious freedom. If Lewis had violated the state’s previous kosher laws by supervising food establishments using a different interpretation of kosher than the law had required, the laws could have been enforced against him, damaging his reputation and subjecting him and others to criminal charges and fines.
The ACLU’s lawsuit charged that the Kosher Food Labeling Act violated 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.
“Previous law in Georgia violated the fundamental pillars of religious liberty by endorsing one particular set of beliefs and impeding the free religious exercise of those who believe differently,” said Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. “The government should never take sides in theological debates.”
The ACLU of Georgia and the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief were joined by the Atlanta law firm King & Spalding LLP as co-counsel for Rabbi Lewis.