Federal Judge Strikes Down Baltimore Kosher Food Law

In a decision that may impact government enforcement of kosher food practices in the United States, a federal judge has struck down Baltimore’s kosher food ordinance, calling it an unconstitutional entanglement of church and state.

The decision may affect similar laws in the 15 to 20 states and the handful of counties and municipalities where they exist.

Although the New Jersey State Supreme Court in 1992 struck down that state’s kosher food laws as unconstitutional, this is the first time a federal court has ruled against legal enforcement of Jewish dietary laws by government agencies.

In New Jersey, the regulations have been rewritten to conform with the court’s decision.

In the Baltimore ruling, however, the city’s Bureau of Kosher Meat and Food Control has been outlawed.

In his Oct. 1 ruling, U.S. District Court Judge Benson Legg called the Baltimore ordinance’s purpose of protecting consumers from kosher food fraud “commendable,” but said that “its primary defect is that it excessively entangles civil and religious authority.”

In response, Baltimore’s chief lawyer said the city plans to appeal it to the Supreme Court, if necessary. “We feel very strongly that our kosher food law is constitutional,” Baltimore City Solicitor Neal Janey told The Washington Post.

AGENCIES SEEK TO ‘PROTECT THE CONSUMER’

“Judges are just uncomfortable with the state being involved with anything smacking of religion,” said Dennis Rapps, executive director of COLPA, the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which represents Orthodox Jews on church-state matters.

Consumers suffer “because they’re being defrauded” while the government is not able to ensure that they are really getting kosher food, he said.

A representative of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which certifies kosher products, said, “All these enforcement agencies seek to do is to protect the consumer” from fraud.

In his decision, Legg wrote that the doctrine separating church and state outweighs consumer protection interests in the Baltimore case, according to The Washington Post.

Legg singled out as problematic the city’s employment of a battery of rabbis. But he ruled that the city can legally continue the enforcement of kosher food standards by not using them as its experts.

Efforts were made by COLPA to have the New Jersey case reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court, which denied the petition.

In New Jersey, new regulations are set to go into effect any day, said Yakov Dombroff, chief of the state’s Bureau of Kosher Enforcement. They will require retailers of kosher food to post detailed information about what is involved in ensuring that their food is kosher.

If the N.J. Bureau of Kosher Enforcement finds that products are not as kosher as the retailer says they are, the retailer can be prosecuted for fraud, said Dombroff. “We won’t be making any religious decisions,” he said.

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