Federal judge lifts temporary ban on ritual slaughter of chickens, minutes before start of Yom Kippur

With just minutes remaining before the beginning of the Jewish holiday Yom Kippur at sunset, a federal judge on Tuesday lifted a temporary restraining order that had banned the slaughter of chickens as part of an ancient atonement rite but allowed the lawsuit that triggered the order to go forward. 

United Poultry Concerns, a Maryland organization “dedicated to the compassionate and respectful treatment of chickens, turkeys, ducks and other domestic fowl,” had filed suit against Chabad of Irvine and Rabbi Alter Tenenbaum on Sept. 28. 

On Friday, U.S. District Judge Andre Birotte Jr. issued the order, which temporarily prevented Chabad of Irvine from slaughtering chickens as part of the Kapparot ritual.

The judge had ordered a hearing for Thursday to determine whether a preliminary injunction should be issued, but attorneys for Chabad of Irvine persuaded him to attempt to make the decision by Tuesday afternoon, in time for the start of Yom Kippur observations. Known as the Day of Atonement, it is a time when traditional Jews seek repentance for their sins and forgiveness of the sins of others.

After presiding over a 1 1/2-hour telephone conference call with attorneys and deliberating privately for 45 minutes, Birotte decided to go forward later with a hearing over whether a preliminary injunction should be ordered.    

“This 1,100-year-old practice is protected by the 1st Amendment,” said Hiram Sasser, an attorney with First Liberty Institute, which specializes in defending religious practices. “So, the temporary restraining order should never have been issued by the judge.”

​​​Bryan Pease, an attorney representing the nonprofit, vegan-oriented animal-rights group, argued that the restraining order had confirmed “that these practices violate state laws that prohibit killing animals and throwing them away for the purposes of what the defendants claim is the transfer of people’s sins to the slaughtered birds.”

After the order was lifted, Pease said: “We will make it clear to the court that we’re not asking for a particular way for people to worship. Instead, we will ask for enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws.”

“We believe the rabbis’ true motivation,” he said, “is tremendous profit.”

In its lawsuit, the organization contends that each fall rabbis order about 300 chickens “crammed in tiny crates and charge people a fee of $27 to kill and dispose of each chicken.”

The cost of each chicken is $2, according to the lawsuit, “and thus the profit to defendants is approximately $25 per chicken killed and disposed of.”

Multiple court decisions over the years have supported the right to practice such rituals, Sasser said before the judge’s latest ruling. 

Whenever “there are exceptions for secular purposes involving the killing of animals such as for food, or hunting or research, for example, then religious practices, almost every time, automatically have the highest level of constitutional protection,” he said.

Pease had a different view. “The defendant,” he said, “is asking the court to create a religious exception for conduct that is otherwise illegal in California.”

Sasser said he communicated the judge’s ruling to the synagogue just minutes before the commencement of Yom Kippur observations Tuesday night.

Although “preparations were being made to conduct the ritual during the hearing,” Sasser said, “there was very little time left.”

Louis.Sahagun@latimes.com

@LouisSahagun

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