Polish Court Overturns Ban on Ritual Slaughter

Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich.
Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich.

In a landmark victory for advocates of shechitah, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal overturned legislation that served as a de facto ban on ritual slaughter.

“This is by far the clearest statement from any court in Europe on the importance of protecting the rights of religious practice,” said Poland’s Chief Rabbi Michael Shudrich, who led the prolonged legal battle on behalf of the Union of Jewish Communities in Poland. “What’s more, since the High Court has now ruled, the case on shechitah is closed. There is no indication that parliament will try to push this again, but even if they would, it would not get past the court.”

The shechitah issue first came to the fore as a result of a law passed by the Polish parliament in 2002, advocated by animal rights groups, requiring that animals be electrically stunned before slaughter. The Agriculture minister subsequently made an exception for ritual slaughter, but this was struck down by the courts on the grounds that such an act was beyond the scope of his office.

An attempt was made to legislate the exemption through parliament; but in what, according to sources involved in the issue, was a pure case of political posturing, the motion failed.

The result of this wrangling was an effective ban on shechitah as well as halal, Muslim ritual slaughter.

Wednesday’s decision by a majority of nine to five declared the restriction on ritual slaughter unconstitutional.

“The constitution guarantees the freedom of religion, which includes the carrying out of all activities, practices, rites and rituals which have a religious character,” said Judge Maria Gintowt-Jankowicz in her final verdict. “The same constitutional protection also extends to religious activities which differ from conventional behavior which prevails in the country — including activities that are perhaps unpopular among the majority of society.”

Poland’s local demand for kosher products is relatively small, although Rabbi Shudrich said that “it is growing every day.” However, its export market of ritually slaughtered meat is valued at an estimated 500 million Euros ($620 million). Most of this is halal, but an estimated 10 percent is kosher meat, for export to Europe and Eretz Yisrael.

“Today’s ruling is a tremendous achievement,” said Shimon Cohen, director of Shechitah UK, an advocacy group that was formed to protect shechitah in Great Britain, but since has taken an active role throughout the continent, and was especially active in the Polish case.

“In addition to the legal precedent, this also shows that when communities are responsible and address things as a matter of human rights rather than shouting ‘anti-Semitism,’ a great deal can be accomplished.”

The court’s reasoning that it is the state’s duty to protect religious practice, even in spite of what it recognizes as potential issues of animal rights, sets a weighty precedent for Europe, where shechitah has come under increasing scrutiny from governments and activist groups.

“The legal issues that we [in Europe] have been facing are the clash of different rights,” said Rabbi Avraham Pinter, principal of Yesodei HaTorah Schools in London and a frequent advocate on issues relating to community-government relations.

“When it comes to shechitah, there are laws protecting religious rights, but there are others for animal rights. But, we’ve faced the same problem with the government trying to introduce certain subjects into schools’ curriculums under the banner of children’s rights. It’s an issue for bris milah as well. This decision helps, but every country still has to weigh things according to their constitutions.”

Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel for the Washington-based Beckett Fund for Religious Liberty, felt that the court’s ruling set an important precedent for how secular democracies weigh the importance of protecting religious practice.

“The court recognized that there are values that are more important than others,” he told Hamodia. “There are, of course, limits on religious practice as well, but this places its protection very high on the list. Hopefully, it will be an example to other countries like Denmark that are legislating against shechitah, but I must say that I am skeptical of that.”