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I wrote a story for Religion News Service yesterday about Georgia repealing a religious food labeling law specifying that kosher products must adhere to Orthodox Jewish standards. The law had been around for about 30 years, but was only challenged recently by a Conservative Jewish rabbi, with help from the ACLU.
Similar laws have been repealed in Maryland, New Jersey and New York in the past 20 years; ACLU officials told me that there are five states left with Orthodox-based language on the books: Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin. Presumably, they will also eventually be “fixed” to remove the Orthodox requirement, as challenges — most likely from Conservative rabbis who want to be able to certify food — come forward. The ACLU couldn’t tell me what prompts such lawsuits to pop up after a law has been around for decades; perhaps an increase in enforcement becomes the trigger, or changing demographics of state’s Jewish community or raised awareness from hearing about actions in other states…? (Maybe this topic will come up at the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly, going on this week in New York.)
Kosher labeling laws are meant to protect consumers who are paying premiums for kosher food, and Orthodox standards are the ones that most Jews agree to (as opposed to Conservative standards, which aren’t strict enough for some, but you can see why such specific language poses a problem for non-Orthodox Jews, not to mention people concerned with the state maintaining some distance from the “church.”
In any case, it’s a pretty good rule of thumb NOT to take sides in Jewish denominational conflicts, if you don’t have to! (There are plenty of debates within each stream of Judaism, as well.) Lesson learned, Georgia?