NEW YORK, Aug. 7 (JTA) Declaring that New York state’s kosher laws excessively entangle government with religion, a Brooklyn federal judge has struck down the 118-year-old statutes as unconstitutional.
Orthodox kosher law advocates immediately said they would appeal the July 28 decision by U.S. Eastern District Court Judge Nina Gershon, who ruled in favor of a Long Island butcher whose 1996 lawsuit claimed that the state’s kosher laws violated church-state separation.
The ruling marks the latest in a string of legal losses for kosher food laws across the country, including New Jersey and Maryland.
Gershon found that New York’s kosher laws violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution by “endorsing and advancing religion.”
“The entanglements involved here between religion and the state are not only excessive in themselves, but they have the unconstitutional effect of endorsing and advancing religion,” she wrote in a 27-page decision.
Gershon also ordered a permanent injunction barring the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets from enforcing the kosher laws.
New York Gov. George Pataki called the decision “shocking” and said, “We’ll do everything in our power to make sure that these laws that are so important to all New Yorkers are able to continue.”
A spokesman for Brian Yarmeisch, co-owner of Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats, said, “We’re thrilled with the results.”
But attorney Nathan Lewin, who represents several national Orthodox groups, said the judge was “clearly wrong” and vowed an appeal.
Lewin, in an interview with The Jewish Week, argued that the kosher laws are not an entanglement with religion but “simply protection against consumer fraud in the area of religion.”
“There’s nothing wrong with protecting consumers against being defrauded, whether it be over kosher food or anything else,” said Lewin, an Orthodox attorney who is representing the Orthodox Union, the nation’s largest kosher certification agency; Agudath Israel of America; the National Council of Young Israel; and state Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver.
Silver, an Orthodox Jew and one of the state’s most powerful Democrats, said he would seriously eye an appeal.
“My initial reaction is there is a fine line between the establishment of religion and the accommodation of religion,” said the lawmaker. “The state has a definite interest in protecting consumers. I believe the laws of the state are designed to accommodate religion. If some product is sold as kosher, the state has an interest in being able to know that the item is kosher.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said the state must realize that with freedom of religion there are various ways of observing Judaism.
“I think the court has really acted very appropriately here and basically said that any individual who is a rabbinic authority should be able to provide certification,” he said.
Nathan Diament, O.U.’s Washington legislative expert, said Gershon’s ruling was disappointing but not surprising.
“She pretty much telegraphed where she was headed,” Diament said. “It is also following the pattern of the New Jersey Supreme Court,” which struck down that state’s kosher laws as unconstitutional in July 1992.
Diament said the ruling means “the kosher food consumer is left to rely exclusively on the private sector, whether it be the O.U. or other kosher food certification agencies, to try and inform them what’s kosher and what’s not.”
Yarmeisch filed the original lawsuit in January 1996. He claimed the state’s kosher laws are based on “Orthodox Hebrew religious requirements,” which discriminate against his store. Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats is under the supervision of a Conservative rabbi.
New York Jewish Week staff writer Stewart Ain contributed to this story.