Agudath Israel Reacts to Kosher Laws Ruling
FROM AGUDATH ISRAEL OF AMERICA
For further information:
Rabbi Avi Shafran
212 797-9000 ext. 303
AGUDATH ISRAEL REACTS TO KOSHER LAWS RULING:
IS THIS WHAT THE FOUNDING FATHERS HAD IN MIND?
NEW YORK - Reacting to a federal appeals court ruling that New York State's 118-year-old statutes aimed at protecting consumers of kosher food are unconstitutional, Agudath Israel of America called the decision "a judicial body-blow to the unsuspecting consumer."
The new ruling, which affirmed a lower court decision, concerned a lawsuit brought in 1996 by Brian and Jeffrey Yarmeisch, owners and operators of "Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats" in Commack, Long Island. Their store had been fined for failing to comply with the law's mandate that foods sold as "kosher" must satisfy "Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements." They contended that their store was under a Conservative rabbi's supervision and that New York State therefore acted unconstitutionally in insisting on Orthodox standards.
The appeals court accepted the Yarmeisches' contention that the New York law requires secular government officials to make religious determinations in deciding whether a food is in fact "kosher" under the statute's definition, thus violating the First Amendment's "Establishment Clause", which prohibits entanglement of state and religion.
However, Agudath Israel's executive vice president for government and public affairs, David Zwiebel, took issue with that reasoning.
"This is a question of consumer protection, not religious establishment. Government has every right to insist that a product claiming a certain feature actually possesses that feature, as a typical, reasonable consumer would understand it. That right is no less present in the context of kosher food than it is in the context of used cars and designer jeans."
The Agudath Israel representative pointed out that in an earlier case, in which the New Jersey state kosher laws were under challenge, a legal brief submitted on behalf of the Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist rabbinates acknowledged that the word "kosher" is broadly understood as encompassing Orthodox standards. "True," he said, "the concept of kashrut is inherently religious. But that doesn't make the labeling of products as kosher any less of a secular consumer issue than whether a 'salt-free' or 'organically grown' product is what it claims to be."
Agudath Israel is part of a larger group of prominent Jewish individuals and organizations, represented by prominent constitutional lawyer Nathan Lewin, who are defendants in the Commack case. They and the Kosher Law Enforcement Division of the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, the agency that administers the state's kosher laws, are each expected to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to reverse the Court of Appeals ruling.
Despite the current setback, Mr. Zwiebel remains optimistic that the High Court will indeed reinstate the New York law: "It is inconceivable that the U.S. Constitution prevents the state from taking any action against an unscrupulous vendor who deliberately misleads the public into thinking a food item is kosher when it clearly is not. That cannot be what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they enacted the Bill of Rights.