Rules Are for Schmucks: The Great Kosher Cheese Caper

Shills for organized religion never tire of demanding that government avoid meddling in their affairs. Since they deal directly with God, they are seriously annoyed when a mere mortal, especially a politician appointed by other mere mortals, presumes to tell them what to do. A couple of years ago, for example, they swooned in shock when Houston city attorneys tried to follow up on a highly plausible suspicion of referendum petition fraud. An extraordinary percentage of the signatures on a church-organized petition to repeal a gay rights ordinance were faked, and city attorneys wanted to figure out why. Had pastors told their flocks that the laws of God should prevail over the laws of man? We’ll never know, because the howls of “Meddling!” were so shrill—the head of the Family Research Council called it a “Soviet-style crackdown”—the city finally backed off.

Then there’s the simple matter of financial reporting. Nonprofits (like the American Humanist Association) have to provide extensive information on IRS Form 990 about their major contributors, expenditures on exempt activities, and so on in order to justify their rich tax benefits. Churches, which get even better tax benefits when state and local taxes are considered, file essentially nothing. One thoughtful commentator has pointed out that contributors would probably give churches more money if they had the greater confidence that the threat financial transparency would bring, but it doesn’t matter. Financial transparency would mean government meddling in religion, the unspeakable evil to avoid.

Except … when it isn’t. Last week the God industry was relieved when authorities filed a criminal prosecution—criminal!—against a family-run food distributor for delivering cheese to a children’s camp that was supposed to be kosher, but (allegedly) wasn’t. There was nothing wrong with the cheese, nothing that tasted bad or would make anyone sick—it just hadn’t been properly certified as complying with whatever internal religious mumbo-jumbo it is that separates “kosher” from non-kosher cheese.

This matter is pending in Canada, but it tracks a recent case in the US, in which management employees of a meat company were prosecuted for selling “halal” meat that wasn’t technically halal. Maybe the animals didn’t suffer enough as they were being slaughtered to make it truly halal— I don’t know. I do know that the employees were sentenced to a year in the slammer, from which they just emerged. No God lobbyists were heard moaning about “government meddling” as they were dragged off to jail.

Ironically, right about the same time the evil cheesemongers were being brought to justice, biblical scholars were breathlessly reporting that the whole kosher regime was never intended to apply to ordinary Jews, only to priests. If I were the judge in Canada, I’d be sorely tempted to throw the case out on those grounds alone. But that wouldn’t satisfy all the rabbis who earn their paychecks off certifying food as “kosher,” or all the imams who get paid to certify food as “halal.” (Except, of course, while they’re spending their time whining about government “meddling” in religion.)

My favorite example of government protection/meddling in religion occurred a few years ago in Connecticut. As scandal after scandal broke about priests stealing parish funds, mostly to pay for sex, an organization arose of Catholic laypeople whose money had been stolen, calling itself “The Voice of the Faithful.” These folks wanted simple accountability—parish councils, with the right to examine the books. They didn’t have to look far to find their model—New York and Philadelphia Catholic parishes had been run this way for years, not to mention most Protestant denominations. But the howls of “government meddling!” were so intense when they brought their plan to the legislature, they couldn’t even get a hearing. According to the bishop of Bridgeport at the time, the plan for parishioner accountability “directly attacks the Roman Catholic Church and our faith” and was a “thinly veiled attempt to silence the Catholic Church.” He went on that “this irrational, unlawful, and bigoted bill jeopardizes the religious liberty of our church.” For his efforts at preserving secrecy, Bishop Lori was promoted to Archbishop of Baltimore and then to the chairmanship of the national bishops’ Committee for Religious Liberty.

The list goes on and on. Government’s not supposed to regulate church-affiliated pensions, because that would be meddling—so the retirees get shafted. Government can’t meddle in religious schools, so they’re free to ignore the needs of disabled kids. In New Jersey, the governor just refused to sign a bill banning child marriage because that could be seen as meddling with religion.

Now we’re even told that government can’t regulate the genital mutilation of little girls, because that would be meddling in religion. And when anyone suggests government meddling to regulate the genital mutilation of little boys, they immediately get branded as Nazis.

Religion is a business, like any other. When people commit fraud in business, even about something as silly as the kosher and halal rules, government should step in so consumers can know what they are buying—including consumers like me, who consciously avoid purchasing kosher or halal products because I hate giving the “certifiers” my money. But the same “meddling” that the God industry seeks in the kosher and halal cases should apply to all the other aspects of its operations, just as it does for every other player in the economy.