3 January 2018

Group that seeks health department, NYPD to regulate Jewish ritual of Kaporos makes case to Court of Appeals

By Dan Goldberg, Politico
01/03/2018 05:05 AM EDT

Every year, just before the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, thousands of chickens are slaughtered on the streets of Brooklyn. It's an act of animal cruelty that takes place in illegal, unregulated slaughterhouses, posing a public health threat to all who pass by, according to the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos.

The alliance, made up of people who oppose the sacrifice of chickens for ritual atonement, and several other individuals who live or work near where the practice takes place, want the NYPD and the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to enforce the laws the group believes are being violated by the Orthodox Jews who partake in the practice.

The city has refused to do so, and the NYPD told one woman who complained that officers "had orders from on high not to disturb the practitioners," according to a brief filed with the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, and posted Tuesday.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

The lawsuit, first brought in 2015, has been dismissed by a Manhattan Supreme Court judge and the First Department of the Appellate Division. Both courts ruled that the city can decide how and when to enforce these laws.

In October, several protesters interrupted New York City Health Commissioner Mary Bassett as she was giving a talk at Columbia University, urging her to enforce health codes and laws that prohibit pop-up slaughterhouses and slaughtered animals from being discarded in the street. Slaughtering of animals is also not supposed to take place so close to homes.

The Health Department maintains there is no public health threat and therefore no reason for them to get involved.

"This has been litigated," Bassett said to the protesters. "We have no disease signals associated with this practice."

Chris Miller, a spokesman for the Health Department, said this is "a significant religious practice."

Kaporos — the Hebrew word for atonement — is an ancient practice during which live chickens are swung over the head and then slaughtered to atone for sins before Yom Kippur. Thousands of chickens are shipped into Brooklyn every year, mostly to Crown Heights and Borough Park.

Many chickens die in overcrowded crates from a lack of food and water. The ones that live are slaughtered outside, their carcasses placed in garbage bags, while blood and feces run down the street, according to the brief.

"Kaporos causes a major health risk due to unsanitary and toxic conditions, and also causes emotional trauma, as plaintiffs and others are forced to bear witness to horrifyingly violent bloody acts and gruesome animal cruelty," the brief states. "There is an unbearable stench in the air; there are no adequate clean up and containment measures."

Members of the Alliance to End Chickens as Kaporos believe the ritual violates more than a dozen state and city laws, including those protecting against animal cruelty.

The First Department, in a 3-2 decision, ruled that the courts cannot compel police officers to enforce discretionary laws. In other words, it is up to the city how to handle this ritual.

"There is no express provision designating Kaporos as a prohibited act," the majority wrote. "Plaintiffs do not have a 'clear legal right' to dictate which laws are enforced and how, or against whom."

Animal cruelty occurs when there is unjustifiable physical pain, suffering or death, but it is the police who determine what is justified, according to the court.

Those opposing Kaporos argued to the Court of Appeals that these rules are not discretionary. The Health Department is required to enforce the health code, and the NYPD has a "duty" to protect the health of New Yorkers, their brief states.

The animal cruelty statute says an officer "must" issue an appearance ticket or summons, or arrest any one violating the law. Whether it is justified should be determined by a court, the group argues.

"It is not up to the street cop to determine if a defense to this crime exists," the brief states. "That is to be left to the judiciary. The NYPD's job is to effect the arrest, and bring the perpetrator before a court."

The alliance would like the Court of Appeals to rule that the practice constitutes animal cruelty and force the NYPD to issue summonses.

The NYPD's response is due Feb. 23.

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