LUXEMBOURG (CN) — Ruling against an unlikely alliance of Jewish and Muslim leaders, the EU’s highest court held Thursday that member states can require that animals be stunned before being killed.
The European Court of Justice found that Belgium’s animal slaughter law does not violate the rights of Jews and Muslims, who argued the regulation infringes on their religious beliefs.
“The measures ... allow a fair balance to be struck between the importance attached to animal welfare and the freedom of Jewish and Muslim believers to manifest their religion,” the Luxembourg-based court wrote.
EU regulations require that animals be “rendered insensible to pain before slaughter,” but member states can make exceptions for religious rituals. In a law that went into effect in 2019, Belgium mandated that all animals be stunned before slaughter, virtually banning Jewish and Islamic ritual slaughter, which requires that animals be in perfect health before they are killed.
The law was pushed by an odd mix of animal rights groups and far-right, anti-Muslim politicians. In opposing the law, Jewish and Muslim leaders also came together in an unusual alliance that ultimately came up short Thursday.
“Animal welfare, as a value to which contemporary democratic societies have attached increasing importance for a number of years, may, in the light of changes in society, be taken into account to a greater extent in the context of ritual slaughter and thus help to justify the proportionality of legislation such as that at issue in the main proceedings,” the ruling states.
The dispute was referred to the Court of Justice by Belgium’s Constitutional Court, the Grondwettelijk Hof. In a July hearing before the EU’s top court, religious groups argued that, in some cases, their methods were more humane than stunning and that the regulations singled them out because they did not apply to recreational hunting and fishing. That argument failed to sway the EU judges.
“Hunting or recreational fishing activities take place in a context where conditions of killing are very different from the ones used for farmed animals and hunting is subject to specific legislation. It is therefore appropriate to exclude killings taking place during hunting or recreational fishing from the scope of this regulation,” the 15-judge panel wrote.
There was disagreement at the July hearing as to whether stunning even violates religious practice. One rabbi told the court that the Belgian rule is compatible with Jewish law, an argument the court was sympathetic to.
“Preparatory documents show that electronarcosis is a non-lethal, reversible method of stunning, with the result that if the animal’s throat is cut immediately after stunning, its death will be solely due to bleeding,” the ruling states.
Belgium is home to some 500,000 Muslims and 30,000 Jews. Those who want to observe their religion’s slaughter rules must now obtain meat from abroad.
Rabbi Menachem Margolin, chairman of the European Jewish Association, said the ruling puts “animal welfare above the fundamental right of freedom of religion.”
“This is a sad day for European Jewry. For decades now, as animal rights have come into vogue, Kosher slaughter has come under relentless attack, and subject to repeated attempts to ban it,” he said in a statement. “The entire basis of the attacks are built on the entirely bogus premise that Kosher slaughter is more cruel than regular slaughtering, despite there being not a shred of evidence backing this up, and worse completely ignoring the fact that Kosher slaughter puts the welfare of the animal and minimizing its suffering as of paramount importance.”
Thursday’s ruling is a rare instance of the court going against the opinion of one of its magistrates. Advocate General Gerard Hogan wrote in a September nonbinding advisory opinion that animal welfare laws must not trample on religious freedom.
“My interim conclusion is ... that member states are not permitted to adopt rules which provide, on the one hand, for a prohibition of the slaughter of animals without stunning that also applies to the slaughter carried out in the context of a religious rite,” Hogan wrote.
Islamic groups lost another case before the Luxembourg-based court in 2018 over a Belgian law that required animal slaughter to take place in slaughterhouses. In that case, the court found rules mandating that ritual animal slaughter occur only in approved facilities did not discriminate against Muslims.
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