Tuesday, June 12, 2012

New York's kosher labeling law is kosher

The State of New York passed a law in 2004 that imposes requirements on sellers and manufacturers that market their food products as "kosher." One requirement is that kosher foods be labeled as such. Also, the guy who certifies the food as kosher has to be identified to state authorities. The law does not define "kosher" or authorize state inspectors to determine the kosher nature of the products. A business in Commack, Long Island, challenges the constitutionality of this law. The Court of Appeals says it's constitutional.

The case is Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats v. Hooker, decided on May 10. The plaintiffs challenge this law under the Establishment Clause, which requires that laws have a secular purpose and not advance any particular religion. Laws also cannot allow the government to entangle itself with religion. This law has a secular purpose; many non-Jews eat kosher foods these days, the Court of Appeals (Walker, Lynch and Droney) says. "Thus, the legislative history is clear that the labeling law has the secular purpose of protecting against fraud by informing a consumer that a particular seller believes a product is kosher."

While the plaintiffs also argue that the Kosher Act entangles the state with religion because it requires kosher goods to have a kosher label, the Second Circuit disagrees. The law does not define what is kosher. "The label simply indicates to the consumers that the seller or producer, and its certifier, believe the food to be kosher under their own standards. ... Thus, the Kosher Act does not entangle the State with religion because it does not require the State to enforce laws based on religious doctrine or to inquire into the religious content or religious nature of the products sold." For mostly these reasons, the law also does not advance religion. It "requires a seller of kosher products to label those products held out as kosher." The government is not taking sides on which religious requirements are appropriate.

For similar reasons, the Court also rejects the plaintiffs' Free Exercise Clause challenge. The law is neutral and applies to everyone, so any infringement on religious practices is legal under Supreme Court precedent. The law "applies to any seller who offers products for sale as 'kosher' regardless of the seller's religious belief or affiliation." While a law can violate the Free Exercise Clause if the legislature intended to burden a particular religious practice, that did not happen here. The statute does not allow state inspectors to verify if in fact the good is kosher, and the producer can classify the food as kosher based on his own standards. Anyone can designate the food as kosher. According to the Court of Appeals, all the state wants to do is prevent "fraud in the kosher marker by identifying, for the benefit of consumers, which products are being marketed as kosher, and the basis they are asserted to be so, in order to enable consumers to make their own decisions as to whether to accept teh assertion according to their own religious or non-religious standards. The law is kosher under the Constitution.

No comments: