They won a landmark federal court ruling eight years ago, reversing New York State’s century-old kosher laws, which had favored Orthodox standards of kashrut.
But it wasn’t enough to keep the state out of the kitchen, so to speak. The government is allegedly continuing to inspect kosher establishments to ensure that only kosher products are sold.
So the Long Island kosher butchers who won the court order — Brian, Jeffrey and Evelyn Yarmeisch — are back in federal court this week with a new lawsuit demanding that the state comply with its own law; it requires kosher establishments simply to display the name of their kosher supervisor and prohibits inspectors to go into the kitchen to verify that the meat, poultry, fish and dairy products sold are kosher.
“It is reported that the inspectors employed [by the state] are not required to be ordained rabbis” nor trained in the kosher laws, the suit said. “The interpretation of Jewish law was and remains a religious issue … The state has no right to intrude upon or second guess a certifier’s interpretation of Jewish law.”
But the suit, which seeks $1 million in damages, contends that New York has continued to conduct kosher food inspections despite the fact that it knew or should have known that they are “without legal justification … [and] in direct contempt of this court’s order and decision.”
In March 2000, Brooklyn Federal Judge Nina Gershon struck down the state’s century-old kosher food laws because requiring kosher establishments to comply with Orthodox Jewish law violated the Constitution’s prohibition against religious involvement by the state.
“The entanglements involved here between religion and the state are not only excessive in themselves, but they have the unconstitutional effect of endorsing and advancing religion,” she wrote.
Gershon also issued an injunction barring the state’s Department of Agriculture and Markets from enforcing the kosher law statewide because it would be enforcing “purely religious laws, inevitably requiring the state to rely on religious authority and interpretation to properly enforce them.”
A spokeswoman for the department said she could not comment on pending suits.
At the time the kosher law was overturned, many Conservative and Reform Jewish groups applauded the ruling and said there was a need for a consensus definition of what is kosher.
But the state legislature opted instead to adopt a law similar to that of New Jersey’s, which calls upon kosher establishments to display the name of the kosher supervisor. In that way, consumers can decide for themselves if the kosher certification is one on which they wish to rely. The department is not permitted to evaluate the qualifications of the certifying rabbi. Commack Kosher is under the supervision of a local Conservative rabbi.
In the new suit filed by attorney Robert Dinerstein of Commack in behalf of the store’s owners, it is alleged that the continuing state inspections are “invasive of [kosher establishments’] religious rights … [and] part of a long existing and deliberate course of conduct by the defendants.”
“By engaging in the conduct as complained of, the defendants harass those purveyors of kosher foodstuff who do not march in lockstep with the defendants’ interpretation of what should be acceptably kosher,” it said. “It is clear that without the intervention of this court the inspections will continue,” the suit added.