For Immediate Release
ACLU Lawsuit Charges Georgia Kosher Laws Are Unconstitutional
State Endorsement Of One Belief Over Others Violates Religious Freedom
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
"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 &
A copy of the ACLU's complaint is available online at: www.aclu.org/pdfs/religion/
Additional information about the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief is available online at: www.aclu.org/religion
Additional information about the ACLU of Georgia is available online at: www.acluga.org
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