European Court of Justice approves Belgian kosher slaughter ban

The laws requiring animals to be stunned before they are slaughtered strike "a fair balance between animal welfare" and religious freedom.

A KOSHER slaughterhouse. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A KOSHER slaughterhouse.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The European Union Court of Justice has upheld a ban on kosher and hallal slaughter in Belgium.
In a ruling released on Thursday, the court dismissed arguments by Jewish and Muslim groups that Belgium is infringing on their religious rights by requiring them to stun animals in the process of slaughtering them for meat, something contrary to their religious precepts.
The ruling sets a precedent that could lead to a wave of laws against shechita, Jewish ritual slaughter, throughout the European Union.
European regulations ban slaughter without pre-stunning, but they make an exception for religious slaughter. According to the regulations, countries can set their own laws to reduce animal suffering.
The court determined that the laws requiring animals to be stunned strike “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 reason the court gave for the law being balanced is that it allows for “reversible stunning.”
The court said the law limits one specific aspect of the ritual act of slaughter, not the act of slaughter itself; as such, it does not count as interference with religious practice.
Mainstream Jewish and Muslim authorities do not permit any form of stunning before slaughtering animals for meat. Nevertheless, the court has determined that outlawing the production of meat for those communities is a fair balance between animal rights and the rights of Jews and Muslims.
“That interference [in ritual slaughter] meets an objective of general interest recognized by the European Union, namely the promotion of animal welfare,” the court wrote in its ruling.
The court did not accept the argument that hunting and killing animals at “cultural or sporting events” is permitted by law, even though the animals are not stunned before they are killed.
“Cultural and sporting events result at most in a marginal production of meat which is not economically significant,” the court said. “Consequently, such events cannot reasonably be understood as a food production activity, which justifies their being treated differently from slaughtering.”
The court took the unusual step of ruling against European Advocate-General Gerard Hogan’s opinion.
In September, Hogan said EU member states “are obliged to respect the deeply held religious beliefs of adherents to the Muslim and Jewish faiths by allowing for the ritual slaughter of animals,” and requiring stunning in the slaughter process “would compromise the essence of the religious guarantees” the EU provides.
In 2017, the Dutch-speaking Flanders and French-speaking Wallonia regions of Belgium passed laws that prohibited slaughter without pre-stunning, even within the context of religious rites, such as shechita and halal.
Last year, Belgium’s Constitutional Court sent the lawsuit, which was filed by the Coordinating Committee of Jewish Organizations in Belgium (CCOJB), to the European Union Court of Justice to determine whether the law violates EU regulations.
CCOJB president Yohan Benizri, who is also vice president of the European Jewish Congress, said: “No democracy can exist when its citizens are denied basic human and civil rights. We plan to pursue every legal recourse to right this wrong.”
Brooke Goldstein, executive director of the Lawfare Project, which helped Benizri with the legal challenge, warned that “the religious freedom of millions of Europeans has been put in jeopardy by this shameful ruling.”
Israel’s Foreign Ministry said the ruling “sends a harsh message to the Jews of all of Europe. Beyond the fact that the decision harms freedom of worship and religion in Europe, which is a core value of the EU, it signals to Jewish communities that they are not wanted in Europe.”
A way to change the decision and allow Jewish Europeans to continue to observe their religion should be found, the Foreign Ministry said.
“Any other decision contradicts the value of freedom of religion that EU citizens justly support,” a ministry spokesman said.
Israeli Ambassador to Belgium Emmanuel Nahshon said the ruling is “a catastrophic decision, a blow to Jewish life in Europe. Apparently, tolerance and diversity are empty words in the eyes of some Europeans.”
Israel's Diaspora Affairs Minister Omer Yankelevich criticized the decision, noting the devastating effects it may have on the daily lives of both Jews and Muslims who've built a life in Europe.
"I was sorry and surprised to hear about the outrageous decision made by the European Union Court of Justice that allows members of the EU to prohibit Kosher slaughter. The ruling leaves Jews and Muslims in an impossible situation and harms the fabric of life in Europe,"  Yankelevich said.
"We'll work as soon as possible, together with our allies in Europe and the EU, in order to ensure that Jewish life in Europe continues," she added.
Russian Chief Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, president of the Conference of European Rabbis, said Thursday’s decision “flies in the face of recent statements from the European institutions that Jewish life is to be treasured and respected.”
“The court is entitled to rule that member states may or may not accept derogations from the law… but to seek to define shechita, our religious practice, is absurd,” he said. “The European Court of Justice’s decision to enforce the ban on non-stun slaughter in the Flanders and Wallonia regions of Belgium will be felt by Jewish communities across the continent.
“The bans have already had a devastating impact on the Belgian Jewish community, causing supply shortages during the pandemic, and we are all very aware of the precedent this sets which challenges our rights to practice our religion.”
Goldschmidt said bans on religious slaughter have been an attempt to control a country’s population and can be traced back to the 1800s, when Switzerland attempted to stop Jews fleeing pogroms from entering their country, as well as to Nazi Germany. In 2012, politicians in the Netherlands attempted to ban ritual slaughter to stop the spread of Islam, he said.
“We are told by European leaders that they want Jewish communities to live and be successful in Europe, but they provide no safeguards for our way of life,” Goldschmidt said. “Europe needs to reflect on the type of continent it wants to be. If values like freedom of religion and true diversity are integral, then the current system of law does not reflect that and needs to be urgently reviewed.”
Tobias Siegal contributed to this report.