Muslim and Jewish leaders argue their religions require animals to be fully healthy and conscious when they are slaughtered.
(CN) — In a legal test case pitting animal rights advocates and far-right politicians against Muslim and Jewish religious leaders seeking to protect halal and kosher meats, a magistrate for Europe’s highest court on Thursday said bans on the ritual slaughtering of animals without first stunning them are unlawful.
This was the advisory opinion issued by Gerard Hogan, an advocate general for the European Court of Justice. Hogan’s legal findings are not binding on the court, but serve as guidance for a panel of judges set to rule on a Belgian law that bans slaughtering animals without first stunning them to ease their suffering. In July, the court heard arguments in the pivotal case. Similar bans are in place in Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia.
A 2017 decree passed by the Flemish region in Belgium violated the freedom of religion because it had the effect of prohibiting “the slaughtering of animals by means of traditional Jewish and Muslim rites,” Hogan’s opinion said.
“There is, I think, no avoiding the fact that the preservation of the religious rites of animal slaughter often sits uneasily with modern conceptions of animal welfare,” Hogan wrote in his opinion. Nonetheless, he said animal welfare laws must not trample on religious freedom.
Under the decree, the Flemish region banned slaughtering animals that weren’t first stunned. A similar decree was passed in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of Belgium.
But Muslim and Jewish religious leaders challenged the Belgian decrees and argued that their religions require animals to be fully healthy and conscious when they are slaughtered to make halal and kosher meat. Stunning an animal before slaughter is allowed for some halal meat as long as the effects wear off but the practice is not allowed under kosher rules.
The Belgian government argued the law was not an infringement on religious freedom because it allowed for non-lethal stunning – a practice known as reversible stunning – for ritual slaughter.
Belgium’s 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.
The case was referred to the European Court of Justice, the European Union’s highest court, by Belgium’s Constitutional Court, the Grondwettelijk Hof.
Hogan said it is legal for countries to pass laws banning the slaughter of animals without stunning them but that such laws must also make room for religious practices. He said his findings are in line with EU animal welfare regulations that require stunning before slaughter but also allow for religious exceptions.
He said the EU regulations show the bloc’s “commitment to a tolerant, plural society where divergent and, at times, conflicting views and beliefs subsist and must be reconciled.”
Nonetheless, he said animals must be protected from suffering to the “greatest degree possible” even during ritual slaughter. He added that meat slaughtered without stunning for religious purposes should not be allowed to “enter the general food chain” in order to prevent people from consuming meat that doesn’t meet EU animal welfare standards.
The legal fight over ritual slaughter has political dimensions too. Throughout Europe, far-right nationalist politicians are pushing against Muslims as they promote the idea that Christian Europe is under siege. Anti-Muslim sentiment across Europe has led to legal fights over bans on the wearing of headscarves, the construction of mosques and the arrival of Muslim immigrants and asylum seekers. In Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Belang party campaigned to ban ritual slaughter of animals.
In arguing against the Belgian ban, Emmanuel Jacubowitz of the Central Israelite Consistory of Belgium said Jewish kosher rules require animals to be in perfect health before being killed. Muslim and Jewish groups also pointed out that restrictions on animal slaughter were not applied to hunting and fishing.
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.
GAIA, a Belgian animal rights lobby that campaigned for the ban on ritual slaughter, described Hogan’s legal opinion as “a black day for animal welfare in Europe.”
“We did not see this coming,” said Michel Vandenbosch, the GAIA president, in a statement.
He noted that Hogan’s opinion is not binding on the court and that previously the court did not follow the advice of an advocate general in a case involving whether an organic label can be awarded to meat derived from animals that have not been anesthetized before slaughter.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.