Second Circuit Upholds NY’s Kosher Labeling Statute

New York’s Kosher Law Protection Act of 2004 requires sellers who market food products as kosher to label the products “kosher” and identify the person who has made the “kosher” certification. Unlike an earlier statute, which defined “kosher” by reference to Orthodox Jewish kashrut rules, the 2004  act does not define the term or authorize state inspectors to determine whether products satisfy particular kashrut requirements. It simply requires sellers to affix a label and disclose the basis for their assertion that the products are, in fact, kosher.

A New York deli that sells kosher food under the supervision of a non-Orthodox rabbi challenged the 2004 statute under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses. The deli pointed out that non-Orthodox interpretations of Jewish law do not require kosher food to bear a label, and argued that the labeling requirement thus amounted to an establishment of Orthodox Judaism. The deli also argued that the labeling requirement burdened its free exercise of a non-Orthodox form of Judaism.

Yesterday, the Second Circuit dismissed these claims. With respect to establishment, the court applied the  Lemon test. It held that the 2004 act had the secular purpose of preventing consumer fraud and did not advance religion. It’s true that the labeling requirement coincided with Orthodox Jewish practice, the court reasoned, but that did not amount to a legislative endorsement of Orthodox Judaism. A reasonable observer would see the labeling requirement as a neutral guide for consumers who wished to purchase kosher food — 70% of whom, the court noted, were not even Jewish, according to market research (who knew?). And, because the statute did not require the government to assess the correctness of a kosher designation, but only required sellers to identify the private persons that had made the designation, the statute did not threaten any entanglement with religion. With respect to the free exercise claim, the court held under Smith that the 2004 act was a neutral and generally applicable consumer protection law that did not violate plaintiff’s rights. The case is Commack Self-Service Kosher Meats v. Hooker, 2012 WL 1633143  (May 10, 2012).