Jews, Muslims decry court decision backing Belgian ban on kosher, halal slaughter

Halal lamb carcasses in a refrigerated warehouse. Credit: Mehmet Cetin/Shutterstock.

CNA Staff, Dec 18, 2020 / 01:01 pm (CNA).- Despite concern that a Belgian law bans Jewish and Muslim religious slaughter practices, a European Union court has said the law is justified by the need to promote animal welfare even if it does not accommodate religious freedom.

“This decision goes even further than expected and flies in the face of recent statements from the European institutions that Jewish life is to be treasured and respected,” said Pinchas Goldschmidt, the head of the Conference of European Rabbis, BBC News reports.

The European Court of Justice, the highest court in the European Union, said the Belgian law requiring animals to be stunned limited the rights of Muslims and Jews but did not ban ritual slaughter. The law’s “interference with the freedom to manifest religion” met an “objective of general interest recognized by the European Union, namely the promotion of general welfare.” The law would not affect the sale in Belgium of kosher and halal meat produced in other countries, it noted.

Ben Weyts, the Flanders government’s nationalist welfare minister, welcomed the decision, saying “we’re writing history today.” The animal rights group Gaia also welcomed the decision.

Jewish and Muslim groups had repeatedly challenged the law. Jews and Muslims feared the law would be used to inflame anti-immigrant sentiment. Belgian’s Jewish umbrella group said they would take the case to the European Court of Human Rights.

The court said the law allowed “a fair balance to be struck” between animal welfare and religious freedom. It cited the Flemish parliament’s reliance on scientific evidence indicating that prior stunning was the best way to reduce animal suffering.

Leaders of groups affected, however, lamented the ruling.

“The right to practice our faith and customs, one which we have been assured over many years was granted under European law, has been severely undermined by this decision,” Dr. Moshe Kantor, president of the European Jewish Congress, said Dec 17. “This ruling is a heavy blow to Jewish life in Europe and in essence tells Jews that our practices are no longer welcome. Telling Jews that their ways are not welcome is just a short step from telling Jews that we are no longer welcome.”

The ban took effect in the Flanders region of Belgium in January 2019, and a similar law took effect in Wallonia later that year.

In September the court’s advocate general had said stricter animal welfare laws could take place only if “core” religious practice was not violated. The court’s failure to follow this recommendation came as a surprise, BBC News reports.

Both Muslim and Jewish rules regarding animal slaughter require that the animals be in perfect health at the time of slaughter, which precludes stunning. They are to be killed with a single cut to the neck.

European Union rules and rules in many European countries require that animals be made insensible to pain before slaughter. This means techniques like knocking animals out with gas, delivering an electric shock to small animals like poultry, or using a “captive bolt” device that fires a metal rod to the brain of larger animals, the New York Times reported in 2019.

Most countries and the EU have religious exemptions to the requirement to stun animals. The Belgian rules do not.

Religious authorities say some of these measures, like stunning an animal, violate their slaughter requirements. Some advocates of kosher and halal slaughter say animals lose consciousness in seconds under their methods and may even suffer less.

There are over 30,000 Jews and about 500,000 Muslims in Belgium, out of 11 million people. Those who adhere to the slaughter rules have to order meat from other countries. This means paying more and possibly facing food shortages.

Antwerp has one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe, with many Hasidic communities and “an abundance of kosher restaurants,” the European Jewish Congress said in 2019.

Other Jewish leaders have voiced concern about a new Belgian law regulating homeschooling, a common practice for his Jewish community, as another example of a European trend he said makes it more difficult for observant Jews to live according to their practices.

In September 2013 the Polish bishops’ conference spoke out against a national law banning kosher and halal slaughter, citing longstanding Polish recognition of religious freedom and “the right to maintain one’s own traditions and customs.” Jews and Muslims have the right “to preserve their customs, including the ritual slaughter of animals,” the bishops said.

The bishops’ conference backed the view “that Jewish religious communities and believers of Islam are entitled to preserve and implement their fundamental rights to freedom of religion and worship.”

Poland’s high court overturned the ban in 2014.

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