SANTA ANA, Calif. (CN) — A poultry rights group has asked a federal judge to stop a Jewish group in Southern California from slaughtering hundreds of chickens this week in a religious ritual meant to atone for sins.
United Poultry Concerns sued Chabad of Irvine and its chief rabbi Alter Tenenbaum, claiming the centuries-old kapparot ceremony violates California law against animal cruelty, Penal Code Section 597(a).
In the ritual, practiced largely by Hasidic or Orthodox communities during the days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, each person seeking atonement for sins grabs a live chicken by the wings and swings it overhead three times while reciting a prayer. The chicken is then killed and thrown away, according to the Maryland-based group’s Sept. 29 lawsuit.
“The Legislature did not see fit to include an exception to PC 597(a) for conduct motivated by religion, and there is no such exception,” United Poultry Concerns says. “However, defendants believe they are above the law and can conduct themselves as they wish because of their religious beliefs.”
The group says one of its longtime employees witnessed Chabad of Irvine’s ceremony in 2014. He saw many chickens crammed six or seven together into small cages and then “left in the hot sun for hours with no water,” according to the complaint.
The employee watched as “participants swung the birds around over their heads and then an agent of defendants would take the birds and slit their throats,” before tossing them into trash cans. “The screams of the birds being slaughtered lasted for hours,” the complaint states.
United Poultry says that Chabad of Irvine makes a profit from the ceremony by charging people $25 apiece to participate in the kapparot. While some Hasidic communities donate their chickens to the poor as food, the Irvine community does not because it cannot conduct the ceremony at a USDA-licensed slaughterhouse.
Neither Rabbi Tenenbaum nor the Chabad’s attorney, Leslie Kaufman of Santa Ana, returned calls Friday about the lawsuit.
But in pleadings filed last year in a similar Superior Court lawsuit, Tenenbaum said that “the chickens are brought to the synagogue in crates supplied by the farmer, that are in conformity with California law.”
The rabbi told the court that the birds are held “gently” and slaughtered according to the religious requirements of the Torah, the Orange County Register reported.
In the new lawsuit, United Poultry says that even so, the ceremony violates California’s animal cruelty law.
“The Legislature, and not independent actors, determine what is legal and moral behavior in the State of California,” the group says in an associated request for a temporary restraining order to stop the kapparot.
“Except when done for food or in connection with hunting, investigating, laboratory testing, or killing dangerous animals, none of which is the case here, the intentional killing of healthy, nonthreatening animals is illegal regardless of religious or other motivation,” the request for a TRO says.
Rosh Hashanah has begun and ends Tuesday at sunset. Yom Kippur begins the evening of Oct. 11.
The attorneys for United Poultry Concerns, David Simon of Irvine and Bryan Pease from San Diego, asking that the restraining order be issued before Oct. 10.
State court judges in Los Angeles and Orange County last year refused to issue restraining orders for the two attorneys in similar lawsuits, including in the one against Chabad of Irvine. That case is still headed to trial, Simon said in an interview, but the Los Angeles case was tossed out.
Judges also allowed kapparot rituals last year in cases brought by lawyers in New York and Michigan.
Simon said the new lawsuit was filed in federal court because “there’s a complicated First Amendment issue here the state judges aren’t willing to spend the time to understand.”
He said the state judges were swayed by a 1993 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, which struck down a Florida municipal ordinance banning religious animal sacrifices.
The difference in the new case is that the California law prohibits animal cruelty by everyone, while the Florida law targeted particular religious practitioners, Simon and Pease said.
The attorneys cited the 1990 Supreme Court ruling in Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith. There, the Supreme Court held that a man who used peyote in his religion could not use the First Amendment to avoid obeying Oregon’s ban of the drug because the ban was a “neutral law of general applicability,” not targeting a religious practice.
The same is true in the kapparot case, the plaintiffs argue in the application for a restraining order. California’s anti-cruelty law “was adopted not to discriminate against defendants, but to prohibit undesirable, anti-social behavior. Adding the imprimatur of religion to illegal activity does not make it legal,” they say.
“If somebody was doing this to dogs and cats, there’d be public outrage,” Simon said.
The penal code does not allow lawsuits by individuals to stop animal cruelty. So United Poultry seeks a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants from violating California’s unfair competition laws through violations of the penal code.
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