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Is Georgia’s kosher law kosher? A local rabbi doesn’t think so, and neither does the American Civil Liberties Union nor a pro bono team from Atlanta’s King & Spalding, who are challenging the constitutionality of the state’s Kosher Food Labeling Act. The 1980 law mandates that any food sold as kosher in the state of Georgia must meet the “Orthodox Hebrew religious rules and requirements.” For all practical purposes, that means rabbis who are not Orthodox cannot oversee the preparation of food that will be labeled kosher for public sale. But not all Jewish people in Georgia are Orthodox and not all Jewish sects have the same kosher standards, the ACLU argues, so what’s kosher to one group may not be to another. The state infringes on religious liberty, says the ACLU, when it decides which rabbis are legitimate enough to decide kosher standards. “I understand the state’s interest in ensuring that consumers have the best information available, but this goes far beyond that. The state is playing favorites when it comes to religion,” said Daniel Mach, a senior staff attorney at the ACLU’s Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief who is handling the kosher case. “It should be up to individuals and congregations to decide how to practice their own chosen beliefs.” The Georgia lawsuit was filed on behalf of a Conservative Jewish rabbi who contends he is unable to fulfill his rabbinical duties to supervise food establishments because his theological interpretation of kosher standards 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,” Rabbi Shalom Lewis said. “The two should not be incompatible in America, where everyone’s religious beliefs are to be respected.” Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the ACLU in Georgia, said, “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.” The Georgia Attorney General’s office, which is defending the state in the suit, declined comment. The lawsuit was filed Aug. 6 in Fulton County Superior Court. Mach believes there is an easy solution: rewrite the law to mandate that all kosher products carry labels that explain which sect certified them kosher. According to Mach, several states, including New York, Maryland and New Jersey, have laws that mandate kosher food labels disclose under what standards a product was prepared. He noted that New York’s kosher law faced a similar challenge to Georgia’s statute. In 2002, the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down New York’s kosher law in Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats v. Weiss, holding that the statute created an “excessive entanglement with religion” by requiring the state to rely solely on the Orthodox definition of kosher. The lawsuit was filed by two meat store owners of the Conservative Jewish sect who said they had been cited numerous times for preparing meat not in accordance with the Orthodox kosher standards.

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