PATERSON, N.J., June 22 (RNS)--In another sign of the growing prominence of Islamin America, New Jersey is poised to enact a law that would make it thefirst state with consumer protection laws for food prepared under theMuslim dietary laws, known as halal, a religiously mandated system offood practices akin to kosher regulations for Jews.

The legislation would once again put New Jersey, home to one of thenation's largest Muslim communities, at the forefront of efforts to haveIslamic practices placed on equal footing in the civic arena with thoseof Judaism and Christianity.

Many New Jersey communities already include the Islamic symbols ofthe star and crescent in their holiday displays for winter, which iswhen the Muslim observances of Ramadan have taken place in recent years,and last year the Paterson school district mandated school closings forRamadan, a first in the country.

Muslim leaders who lobbied for a New Jersey halal law to mirror thestatute that protects kosher customers welcomed this latest move asanother step in their emergence into the American mainstream.

"The community is very happy," said Yousef Kosht, the owner ofBelmont Auto Body in North Haledon and an influential voice in thePassaic County Muslim community. He added, however, that the legislationwould be "just a first step" because it deals only with foodpreparation, not the range of other products that could be unclean totraditional Muslims.

For example, many shampoos, cosmetics, and skin care products aremade with pork by-products that render them haram, or unacceptable, theopposite of halal, which is Arabic for lawful or permissible. Manycheeses, cookies, and other foods can be haram as well if they are madewith animal fats.

Kosht said he hopes the proposed law heralds a day when Muslims willbe able to go to the supermarket and find an aisle of products "like forkosher, only for Muslims."

Kosht was one of the leading advocates of the legislation.

A spokesman for Gov. Christine Whitman last week remainednoncommittal about the bill, but other state officials said theoverwhelming consensus in the legislature, plus the fact that the billmirrors existing state laws for kosher products, made it likely Whitmanwould eventually sign it.

Some estimates put the number of Muslims in New Jersey as high as300,000, but whatever the figure, it is growing. In the United States,the estimates range from 3 million to 6 million Muslims.

But whatever its appeal to Muslims, the new state law will alsoplace New Jersey in the center of a food sector that has sprung up soquickly that it remains almost wholly unregulated by governmentoverseers.

"It's a Wild West out there as far as halal goes," said IbrahimHooper, spokesman for the Washington-based Council on American-IslamicRelations, or CAIR, one of the oldest of the growing number of Islamicadvocacy groups. "This is a big issue that hasn't been addressed atall."

The incidence of fraud is growing, experts say, because halalproducts are becoming a profitable market as the demand grows. Whilethere are no figures available, industry executives say halal productsconstitute a multimillion-dollar market that is drawing large-scaleproducers who now compete with the small butchers and food producersthat previously dominated.

"The mom-and-pop butchers are not what we're worried about," saidHooper. "It's when you get the big industrial places that want to jumpin and take advantage of the market that you can get certain problems."

"Maybe they won't have a Muslim doing the slaughtering, or maybethey're playing an audiotape of the blessing as the chickens go down thechute," he said.

Needless to say, that would not be halal.

Halal regulations are taken from the Qur'an, which bases them on thedietary laws set out in the Hebrew bible, which Muslims, likeChristians, consider holy writ. In fact, kosher and halal laws are sosimilar that Jews occasionally shop at halal butchers and vice versa.

Muslim and Jewish laws contain identical bans against pork or eatingcarrion, and are nearly identical when it comes to the slaughter ofanimals, the centerpiece ritual of halal.

In both traditions, the animals to be slaughtered must be free ofdisease and contamination. They must not be allowed to see other animalsbeing killed, in order to prevent terrorizing them, but neither can theybe stunned or drugged before they are killed. The animals must also bewhat the rest of the world might call "organic"--raised with naturalfeed and without use of hormones.

"I can taste the difference. I'm a witness," said HakimahAbdul-Karim, an Elizabeth woman who has been a practicing Muslim fornearly three decades.

When the animals are killed, it must be done by hand with a sharpknife cut across the throat to make the death as quick and merciful aspossible. The slaughtering should be done by a Muslim who recites aprayer, "Bismallah, Allah Akbar," or "In the name of Allah, God isGreat." The dead animal must then have the blood drained from it.