Baltimore's kosher meats law has been ruled unconstitutional by a federal judge, who said it improperly entangles the city in religious matters.
The law, which established a Bureau of Kosher Meat and Food Control with a six-person staff of inspectors, oversteps the Constitution's demand for separation of church and state, Judge Benson E. Legg of the U.S. District Court in Baltimore wrote in a 27-page ruling released yesterday.
The law was designed to protect consumers from vendors who intentionally mislabel food as kosher.
"The goal of protecting the city's consumers from fraud is commendable, reasonable and important," Judge Legg wrote. But in the case of the kosher ordinance, he said, "Courts are neither equipped nor permitted to resolve such questions in the context of a criminal prosecution."
Judge Legg ruled that the law "excessively entangles civil and religious authority."
The ruling bars the city from enforcing the law.
The ordinance was challenged by George Barghout, a Palestinian and former operator of a chain of shops called Yogurt Plus. He was accused of violating the law in 1989 after an inspector determined that he offered kosher hot dogs that had been cooked on a rotisserie next to nonkosher sausages and hot dogs.
Mr. Barghout received several warnings from the city to correct the problem. In November 1990, he was found guilty in Baltimore District Court of violating the law and was fined $400 plus $100 in court costs. He settled that case and paid the fine. But later he filed a federal suit challenging the law's constitutionality.
Mr. Barghout's lawyer, Imad K. Dajani, called the federal ruling "beautiful."
"I think it basically confirms what we've argued all along," Mr. Dajani said. "The government has no business enforcing a religious rule of law by the force of a criminal statute."
City officials said that they will study the opinion and appeal if they find sufficient grounds.
"Although we have not read the decision, we believe strongly that the Baltimore City kosher meat ordinance is important, and constitutional, consumer protection legislation," said Burton H. Levin, an assistant city solicitor.
Mr. Barghout said, "I'm really pleased, I'll tell you that. I almost gave up on it."
He sold the food shops last year and, with a partner, opened a jewelry business in Pikesville about a month ago. "I thought it would be more relaxing," he said of his new venture.
Judge Legg's ruling follows a similar ruling by the New Jersey Supreme Court, which nullified that state's kosher regulations. When the case was appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court this year, the decision of the state court was left intact.
In his ruling, dated Sept. 30, the judge said the city ordinance "substantially entangles the courts in the morass of religious doctrine."
"A court would be called upon to decide whether the challenged actions depart from the specified kosher standard -- namely, orthodox Jewish religious dietary laws. In reaching such a decision, a court would be required to interpret religious doctrine."
A gray area exists as courts consider such questions, said David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington.
Laws that charge the state with determining what is kosher are generally struck down, he said. Laws against false advertising that protect specific trademarks or copyrights identifying a product as kosher have generally been upheld.
But if someone less formally identifies a product as kosher and the state suspects fraud, it's unclear what the state can do, he said.
"Who does the state turn to to determine whether something is or is not kosher," said Mr. Saperstein, who teaches at Georgetown University Law School. "If it's a valid claim, it is not impossible to resolve within the rules of constitutional law. But it's just an unclear area."