On the eve of Yom Kippur, a time-honored tradition, now preserved mainly by the ultra-Orthodox, is to perform kapparot, a ceremony in which a chicken is offered up as a sort of atonement offering and then slaughtered and its meat given to the poor. This year, United Poultry Concerns—which campaigns against cruelty to domestic fowl—sued the Chabad house of Irvine, CA for violating a statute prohibiting the “malicious” and “intentional” killing of an animal, and succeeded in obtaining a temporary restraining order from a federal judge, thus effectively preventing the performance of the ritual. Howard Slugh comments:
In their briefing, the plaintiffs lay out a vision in which private morality and individual conscience are replaced by a one-size-fits-all, government-mandated morality. . . . In their complaint, [they] caricature religious liberty as a matter of religious people asserting that “they are above the law and can conduct themselves as they wish because of their religious beliefs.” The plaintiffs’ objections are not limited to the realm of law. They object to Chabad’s desire to “determine for themselves what is . . . moral conduct.” They argue that only the legislature can determine “legal and moral behavior in the state of California.” The plaintiffs do not want to control only Chabad’s conduct. They want to control its conscience.
[They] describe the Jewish tradition as a “societal evil” and mock kapparot as “taking out vengeance on an innocent animal for one’s own shortcomings.” . . . The plaintiffs are no more subtle about the scope of their ambitions. They acknowledge that their lawsuit is merely “the first step” toward their “ultimate goal” of banning the religious ceremony nationwide. . . .
[Furthermore], the plaintiffs openly dismissed the importance of the fulfillment of [the] religious obligation as understood by Alter Tenenbaum, [the rabbi of the Chabad of Irvine]. United Poultry Concerns argued that “the relative harm to the defendants” in preventing them from exercising their religion was “minimal,” [because] not all Jews use live chickens for the ritual and that therefore doing so must be “completely optional” and a “mere preference.” They implied that Tenenbaum preferred to use live chickens because doing so was “more lucrative.” Whether [this] explanation of Jewish law is the only valid interpretation of Judaism—it is not—is beyond the point. Even if . . . a single, correct form of Judaism existed, American courts would be neither qualified nor constitutionally empowered to settle such doctrinal disputes. . . .
[T]he American notion of religious liberty has traditionally prohibited, and must continue to prohibit, judges from making such determinations in all but the most extreme of cases. . . . Defenders of religious liberty—and, in fact, of individual liberty—should stand united and refute the . . . argument that only the government can determine morality and that an individual’s understanding of his own conscience has “minimal” value.