By Nicole Neroulias
Religion News Service
(RNS) Prompted by an ACLU lawsuit, Georgia has repealed its religious food labeling law and replaced it with legislation that doesn't define kosher by solely Orthodox standards.
The state's previous Kosher Food Labeling Act had prevented non-Orthodox rabbis from certifying food. Similar laws have been amended in other states, most recently in New York after a 2002 court ruling, due to the same concerns about religious freedom and alternative interpretations of Judaism.
"The state should never be in the position of deciding which religious beliefs are 'legitimate' and which are not," said Debbie Seagraves, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia.
"The state legislature did the right thing by making clear that the power to define what is religiously acceptable should never rest with the government. These are personal religious decisions."
While tricky from a church-state separation perspective, government oversight of religious labeling aims to protect consumers, who can pay more for kosher food, explained Rabbi Menachem Genack, head of the Orthodox Union's Worldwide Kosher Division.
"If you affirm that something is kosher, you have to designate on what definition that is," he said. "A kosher designation isn't meant to impose Orthodox standards, but historically and traditionally, that's what most people agree to as kosher."
Georgia's new law, passed by the state legislature and signed by Gov. Sonny Purdue, no longer includes a definition of kosher, instead requiring only that restaurants, stores and caterers clearly disclose to consumers which standards have been used.
There are five states that have Orthodox-centric kosher labeling laws similar to Georgia's repealed legislation: Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Texas and Wisconsin. No legal challenges have been issued yet in those states, said Daniel Mach, director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief.
"We're monitoring the laws in those other states, and we're certainly pleased that the Georgia legislature did the right thing. We're hoping the other states will follow," he said.