A Towson man made a federal case yesterday of his conviction for selling non-kosher meats, claiming the law he was convicted of breaking and the very existence of Baltimore's Bureau of Kosher Meat and Food Control violate the First Amendment's ban against government establishment of a religion.
George Barghout, owner of Yogurt Plus in the Reisterstown Plaza, asked the U.S. District Court to declare the law unconstitutional -- and with it his conviction in the District Court of Maryland for Baltimore and $500 fine.
Mr. Barghout's conviction last November followed a dispute that began in September 1989 when an inspector from the bureau complained that hot dogs Mr. Barghout was selling as kosher were put on the same rotisserie as other hot dogs -- in violation of the Jewish dietary laws.
The inspector, Rabbi Mayer Kurcfeld, informed Mr. Barghout that Yogurt Plus was in violation of the kosher meat ordinance and had to stop advertising kosher hot dogs.
Mr. Barghout refused to sign the inspector's report, or the seven that followed.
"The enforcement of a religious dietary law by criminal statute amounts to an active promotion and recognition of the Hebrew religion," according to the lawsuit, which also argued that a statute created "with the sole function of enforcing orthodox Hebrew religious rules . . . fosters excessive entanglement between government and religion."
The civil complaint said the law is unconstitutionally vague, and named as defendants Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, the Baltimore City Council, the Bureau of Kosher Meat and Food Control, its chairman, Joseph Nelkin, and Rabbi Kurcfeld, the bureau inspector who brought the charges against Mr. Barghout.
Asked to comment on the suit last night, Rabbi Kurcfeld said the issue is economic: a vendor falsely advertising a product as kosher to anyone willing to pay a higher price.
Rabbi Kurcfeld said he had filed another violation against Mr. Barghout since the November conviction. "The bottom line is money. His advertising says kosher . . . because there is a consumer out there who wants kosher," Rabbi Kurcfeld said. "The consumer should get what they're paying for."
Mr. Nelkin, chairman of the bureau and a lawyer, said the issue is one of consumer protection rather than religion, and noted that similar challenges have failed in federal courts in New York and New Jersey.
Mr. Barghout said after his conviction that the cooking of the kosher hot dogs with other hot dogs didn't affect their kosher quality because "The flame doesn't contaminate the meat; it purifies it."