Mike Gets Results: The Kosher Bill

The issues I most enjoy working on are the ones that directly impact the daily lives of my constituents.

I represent a portion of Atlanta’s orthodox Jewish community in Toco Hills along LaVista Road. Due to a lawsuit that was filed in federal district court, I was presented with a unique situation affecting this community which turned out to be one of the most interesting issues that has crossed my desk during my six years in the General Assembly.

I am writing this update for my constituents both inside and outside the Jewish community. There is more detail in this article than is needed for some constituents, but I thought everyone might want to see how an issue finds its way from the needs of constituents to become a law of this state.

Georgia had a set of kosher statutes that were overseen by the Georgia Department of Agriculture, although to the best of everyone’s recollection they were never actually enforced by that Department. In essence, these statutes said: “Thou shalt not call non-kosher food ‘kosher.’” They defined the term “kosher” as satisfying “orthodox Hebrew religious rules.”

These statutes applied to food that is prepared or served at the same location where it is sold (for example, at a restaurant or at the kosher counter of the Toco Hills Publix or Kroger). There already is a reliable means of identifying mass-produced food which meets orthodox kosher standards. The capital “U” inside a circle that is printed on many products sold at your local supermarket stands for “Orthodox Union” and is one such reliable designation for mass-produced food.

A rabbi from a conservative synagogue in Cobb County joined with the ACLU to file a federal lawsuit challenging Georgia’s existing kosher statutes as violating the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Every law professor with whom I discussed the issue agreed: That lawsuit was likely to prevail and Georgia’s kosher statutes were likely to be struck down as a result.

The ACLU engaged the services of four lawyers from one of the largest law firms in Atlanta to work on this lawsuit. If they prevailed, these four very expensive lawyers were likely to win an award of attorneys’ fees against the State of Georgia. That’s your tax dollars we’re talking about.

Members of the orthodox community approached me to help fix the problem and replace Georgia’s kosher statutes with something that would pass constitutional muster and avoid future lawsuits.

What we worked out is House Bill 1345 (click for more information).

HB 1345 sets forth a disclosure scheme in which establishments purporting to sell kosher food that is prepared on-site will have to fill out a form disclosing what rabbi or organization has certified the food as kosher and answer a series of questions about how the food is prepared. To see what this form looks like, click here. The form must be posted at the place of business where the food is sold so that kosher consumers can review it. The old “thou shalt not” kosher statutes have been repealed.

This new disclosure scheme will be administered by the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs (click for link) under the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act. One benefit to having GOCA oversee the new rules is that they have the resources to enforce the rules and intend to do so. That’s an improvement over the Department of Agriculture, which did not enforce the old statutes.

If you’re a kosher consumer and are concerned about the kosher standards used by an establishment that calls their food “kosher,” you should ask to see their disclosure form. Please keep in mind that under the new kosher statute the words “kosher-style” and “kosher-type” (and only those words; no others) are “safe harbor” terms that do not require a disclosure form to be posted.

In addition, the Georgia Fair Business Practices Act applies only to consumer transactions. If you’re attending a catered event, the only person to whom a caterer has a legal duty to make a disclosure is the person who paid for the catering services. In other words, you should ask your host, the one who paid money in a consumer transaction, what the caterer’s disclosure form said.

I would like to thank Rabbi A. D. Motzen of Agudath Israel of America, Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of Congregation Beth Jacob, Rabbi Reuven Stein of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, University of Georgia Law Professor Hillel Levin, attorney David Schoen, Representative Kevin Levitas (one of my House co-sponsors), Senator Don Balfour (the Senate sponsor of HB 1345), and Bill Cloud and Anne Infinger of the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs for their help in passing our state’s new kosher statute. This legislation was signed into law by Governor Perdue on May 20, 2010. Getting the bill to the Governor’s desk was a team effort.

After the passage of HB 1345, the ACLU dropped its lawsuit. The four lawyers went home empty-handed.

Click here if you would like to watch a video of my presentation of this legislation on the floor of the House of Representatives.

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