Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker drew criticism from Jewish groups recently when he vetoed a bill that would have required the state’s public schools and hospitals to offer upon request kosher, halal and other religion-based dietary options.
State and federal prisons are required, per the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, to offer such dietary accommodations to inmates. But no such federal law applies to state schools and hospitals. The bill, IL HB3643, which the billionaire Jewish democrat vetoed on Aug. 11, was introduced on Feb. 17 and had drawn 33 sponsors.
On May 27, the bill amended the state’s school code to add that each school district had to provide “religious dietary food options, including, but not limited to, halal and kosher food options” during school lunch programs. “A school district is required to comply with this subsection only if the State Board of Education is able to secure a statewide education master contract and provide a religious dietary food option to the school district pursuant to subsection,” the bill stated.
It added that state hospitals also had to provide religious food options.
And it specified that “kosher” refers to food “supervised, prepared under and maintained in strict compliance with the laws and customs of the Jewish religion, including, but not limited to, the laws and customs of shechita requiring the slaughter of animals according to appropriate Jewish law, and in compliance with the strictest standards of Jewish law as expressed by reliable, recognized Jewish entities and Jewish rabbis.”
The bill passed in the state House 93-14 on March 22 on a third reading. The text about kosher food was added on May 17. It passed 39-19 on a third reading in the state Senate on May 18 and passed 63-34, with 10 “other” votes, in a state House concurrence on May 25.
‘There were legitimate concerns’
In a letter to the Illinois General Assembly, Pritzker wrote that he vetoed the bill because local school districts, rather than the state education board, “have the expertise and understanding of local needs required to enter into food-service contracts.”
“Districts are already responsible for all their food service contracts and will continue to have the capability to enter into contracts with meal vendors based on the unique cultural needs of the students and their communities,” he wrote.
JNS asked both the governor’s office and the state education board if the governor would take responsibility, having vetoed the bill, if a local school district opted not to provide kosher, halal or other faith-based dietary options to students. Neither responded to that question.
Olivia Kuncio, senior deputy press secretary for the governor, told JNS that it was impossible for the governor to work with the bill given the way it was written.
“Because the language concerning the master contract was entwined throughout the bill, an amendatory veto wasn’t possible,” Kuncio said. “We’re glad that this issue was raised and hope that the General Assembly will continue to work on legislation to address any issues in this process.”
Despite Pritzker vetoing a bill that would give students access to meals that fit their religious values, Kuncio claimed that the governor is committed “to ensuring all Illinois students have access to meals that fulfill their dietary and religious needs through individual contracts districts have entered into.” She added that Pritzker will keep supporting the state education board in local contract efforts.
Rabbi Shlomo Soroka, director of government affairs at Agudath Israel of Illinois, told JNS that the governor should have worked with the bill.
“We were disappointed that the governor vetoed the entire bill. Although there were legitimate concerns, we were committed to working with the Illinois State Board of Education on additional legislation to address those concerns,” he said.
Those “legitimate concerns” center on the master contract for vendors, which the bill called for and which was “not something school districts were opposed to,” according to Soroka. He believes it is a “fair question” to ask why Pritzker did not choose to use an amendatory veto instead of vetoing the entire bill.
Amy Zimmerman, assistant vice president of state government affairs at the Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Chicago, said her organization hopes that more legislative work can be done to protect students’ religious needs.
“We are disappointed the bill was vetoed and hope that a compromise solution can be found … ,” Zimmerman told JNS.
Soroka told JNS that the ability to get kosher food is an “important need.”