What Does a Kosher Deli Have to Do with Birth Control?

supreme court kosher

If you have a Google News Alert for the phrase “kosher food,” than you’ve probably noticed an odd number of headlines about birth control mixed in with the latest on quinoa and matzah balls.

That’s because a case has reached the Supreme Court, challenging the Obama administration’s birth control mandate on the grounds of religious liberty–and opponents of the law have renewed a misleading analogy involving kosher butchers.

This month, the US Supreme Court heard arguments about the mandate, which states that employers must pay for contraception as part of their employer-provided health insurance. It is being challenged most notably by Hobby Lobby, a corporation owned by religious Christians who claim that being forced to pay for contraception violates their religious freedom. (One of the issues being debated is whether a corporation has that same rights as a person.)

What does that have to do with kosher food? Because some claim that if employers are forced to pay for contraception, then kosher butchers would be forced to sell ham.

Catholic Bishop William Lori popularized the most recent incarnation of the sentiment last year, when he spoke before a Congressional hearing on the issue. Lori went so far as to imagine a law that mandates all food companies must serve pork–as if there is a comparison between pig products and health care.

Then, during oral arguments, Justices Alito, Kennedy, and even the liberal (and Jewish) Breyer grilled Solicitor General Donald Verrilli for twenty minutes over laws banning kosher and halal slaughter, such as those in Europe recently.

But Jonathan Sarna of the Jewish Daily Forward dispelled this misunderstanding back in 2012, after Lori’s testimony. The comparison, he said, favors the employer, and ignores the religious freedom of the employees.

“In America (unlike in Israel), people have the right to choose whether they want to sell ham and whether they want to consume it; neither option is proscribed. We all might agree that kosher delis should not be coerced into selling ham, but hopefully we would also all agree that a deli’s employees and customers should not be penalized for choosing to consume it.”

He also asks, could the law allow a kosher butcher to coerce its employees into fasting on Yom Kippur?

And let’s not forget that access to essential health care and access to pork are of greatly different urgency.

In any event, the butcher analogy doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon, even though it clearly doesn’t apply to the birth control debate; the comparison just doesn’t smell kosher.


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