Mike Gets Results: The Kosher Bill

August 2, 2010

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.


Governor Signs Jacobs Bills into Law

May 27, 2010

Today Governor Perdue signed three of the bills that I pushed during this year’s legislative session: SB 250, which contains my anti-bullying amendment; HB 1345, Georgia’s new Kosher statute; and HB 451, Revised Article 7 of the Uniform Commercial Code, which deals with electronic documents of title in warehouse and shipping transactions. Click the links for more information about each bill.

Sometime soon, I plan to write at greater length about the anti-bullying bill and the Kosher bill. In the meantime, here are excerpts from press releases about these two significant pieces of legislation:

Agudath Israel of America on the Kosher Bill:

Agudath Israel of America commended Governor Sonny Perdue and the Georgia General Assembly upon the signing into law of the Georgia Kosher Food Consumer Protection Act on Thursday.

The bill had garnered unanimous support in both the House and Senate last month, “a testament,” says Agudath Israel Ohio Regional Director Rabbi A. D. Motzen, “to the personal effort of the bill’s sponsor, State Representative Mike Jacobs,” who worked with Orthodox Jewish community leaders in Georgia to promote the legislation. Representative Jacobs, Rabbi Motzen notes, “was involved in every aspect of the bill’s drafting – and redrafting – and garnered the necessary support for the bill’s passage.”

The revised Georgia statute will amend the existing kosher labeling law, enacted in 1980, in a manner that is patterned after the “public disclosure” models adopted in Maryland, New York, and New Jersey.

Public disclosure requires stores selling unpackaged food represented as kosher to inform the public as to the identity of the kosher certifier and other relevant information regarding the standards adhered to when making such a claim. Among other things, the bill also transfers oversight of the kosher law from the Georgia Department of Agriculture to the Governor’s Office of Consumer Affairs.

Though no court in Georgia deemed the state’s kosher law unconstitutional, a challenge was filed by local Conservative Rabbi Shalom Lewis and the American Civil Liberties Union. In response to the lawsuit, a bill was originally introduced in the House to repeal the kosher labeling law, but that measure was not brought to the floor for a vote.

“Had the current law simply been repealed, consumers would have likely faced an increase in kosher fraud,” says Rabbi Reuven Stein, director of supervision at the Atlanta Kashruth Commission. “Any store could have advertised its products as kosher without any requirement to substantiate their claim. House Bill 1345 does not replace the need for a reliable kosher supervisor or agency, but it will give consumers information about the kosher standards being used so they can make informed decisions.”

HB 1345 was co-sponsored by a bipartisan group including State Representatives Kevin Levitas, Joe Wilkinson, Wendell Willard, Michele Henson and Fran Millar. The bill was shepherded through the Senate by Senator Don Balfour. Testimony in favor of the bill was offered by Rabbi Yechezkel Freundlich of Congregation Beth Jacob, University of Georgia law professor Hillel Levin, and David Schoen, Esq.

Rabbi Ilan Feldman, of Congregation Beth Jacob and Dean of the Atlanta Kashruth Commission, had warm words of praise for Agudath Israel’s efforts. “Rabbi Motzen visited Atlanta several times,” Rabbi Feldman said, “and spent dozens of hours working on this legislation from his Cincinnati office. He used Agudath Israel’s national legal network to bring together the necessary experts and kept everyone focused on producing the best legislation possible under the circumstances.”

Governor Perdue on the Anti-Bullying Bill:

Governor Sonny Perdue announced today that he has signed Senate Bill 250, which strengthens Georgia’s anti-bullying laws. The law requires parental notification for students involved in a bullying incident and directs the state Department of Education to develop a model anti-bullying policy that can be used by local school systems. . . .

“Bullying has no place in our schools,” said Governor Perdue. “This legislation will help local systems address incidents of student intimidation and ensure that parents know when their child is involved in a bullying incident.”

The Governor was joined at the bill signing by the family of Jaheem Herrera [of DeKalb County] who committed suicide after being taunted by classmates.

Anti-Defamation League on the Anti-Bullying Bill:

Governor Sonny Perdue has signed into law an ADL-backed bill that provides Georgia schools with new tools for cracking down on bullying, including provisions that target the growing menace of cyber bullying.

S.B. 250 expands on previous state law, which covered just physical violence, to include “Any intentional written, verbal or physical act which a reasonable person would perceive as being intended to threaten, harass or intimidate.” The bill was sponsored by Republican State Representative Mike Jacobs, but also attracted broad-based bipartisan support. . . .

Voting on the bill took place at about the same time that the suicide of Phoebe Prince, a 15-year-old Massachusetts girl who had apparently been relentlessly bullied made national headlines.

Here in Georgia, many legislators said their concerns about school bullying came into sharper focus after seeing reports last year that 11-year-old boy Jaheem Herrera, a student at DeKalb County’s Dunaire Elementary School killed himself because, his mother said, he had been the victim of repeated bullying at school.

The new Georgia law establishes guidelines for dealing with repeat offenders and calls on the state Department of Education to develop a model policy on bullying that will give schools additional support for dealing with the problem. Individual schools will be required to update their own bullying policies to comply with the law’s new scope.


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