(CN) - Belgium has for decades approved temporary animal slaughterhouses to accommodate an annual Islamic feast, but an adviser to Europe’s highest court found Thursday that new regulations interfering in that scheme are not discriminatory.
Advocate General Nils Wahl issued the opinion this morning in connection to a challenge out of Belgium, which announced in 2014 that EU animal-welfare rules prohibited it from allowing the operation of temporary animal slaughterhouses.
Such facilities helped Belgium since 1998 meet the needs of its Muslim community to practice a three-day religious rite called the Islamic Feast of the Sacrifice.
Celebration of the festival requires practicing Muslims “to slaughter an animal, or to have an animal slaughtered, preferably on the first day of the feast,” Wahl wrote.
Usually the family eats only part of the slaughtered animal’s meat, Wahl added, noting that the remainder is then given to the poor and needy, to neighbors, and to a family’s more distant relatives.
In 2009, however, EU lawmakers adopted an animal-welfare regulation that forbids slaughterhouses from killing any animal without stunning them first.
Flemish animal-welfare authorities concluded in 2014 that the rules prohibited them for approving temporary slaughterhouses going forward.
With approved slaughterhouses in short supply, however, various Muslim associations and mosque umbrella groups challenged the EU law as infringing on their religious freedom.
Wahl unraveled their claims Thursday, but his recommendation to the European Court of Justice is not binding.
The opinion takes umbrage with how the case has been presented, saying the issue is not whether the EU law is discriminatory but whether there are enough approved slaughterhouses in the Flemish Region to accommodate the festival.
Indeed none of the challengers here have complained that approved facilities are not fit to carry out ritual animal slaughters.
Wahl cited findings by the European Council and the Commission that animal-welfare regulation at issue “is perfectly neutral and applies to any party that organizes slaughtering.”
“Legislation that applies in a neutral manner, with no connection to religious convictions, cannot in principle be regarded as a limitation on freedom of religion,” the opinion states.
“The fact that recourse to such approved plants engenders additional costs by comparison with the temporary slaughter plants that had previously been tolerated in the Flemish Region therefore seems to me to be irrelevant,” Wahl continued. “What must be borne in mind is that the costs resulting from the setting up of approved slaughterhouses are the same whether or not they are intended for ritual slaughter.”
Wahl also tackled arguments by the Council of Theologians within the Muslim Executive of Belgium “that the ritual slaughter must be carried out without stunning and in observance of other ritual requirements.”
Citing guidance from “some representatives of the Muslim community,” Wahl said electrically stunning an animal prior to its slaughter has “no effect on the animal’s vital functions, and in particular on blood drainage,” thus complying with the requirements of the Muslim faith.
“In similar vein it has been pointed out that a number of Muslim countries import and produce meat that is labelled ‘halal’ and is taken from animals that have been slaughtered after stunning,” the ruling continues.
Wahl also cited the argument by “numerous Muslim scholars and practicing Muslims ... that the slaughter need not necessarily take place on the first day of the feast.”
“There is also a growing tendency, particularly among younger practising Muslims, to consider that the slaughtering of an animal during the feast may be replaced by the making of a gift,” the opinion continues.
In any case, Wahl said, it should not be left to the court to decide whether the Muslim faith prohibits stunning of animals.