Jewish Groups Challenge Belgian Shechitah Ban in High Court

Palace of the Marquess of Assche, seat of Belgium’s Council of State.

Jewish groups in Belgium have brought legal action before the country’s highest court, asking it to overturn legislation that would effectively ban kosher and halal meat production.

This past summer, legislators in two of the country’s three semi-independent regions overwhelmingly passed laws that forbid all slaughter without prior electronic stunning, which renders the animals unfit according to halachah, as well as by the religious standards adhered to by many Muslims. Laws in both the French-speaking Wallonia region and the Flemish-speaking Flanders region are set to go into effect in 2019.

Now, two umbrella organizations — the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations (CCOJB) and the Jewish Consistoire, together with all recognized Jewish communities, shochtim, and kosher butchers—have challenged the law in separate suits, saying that it violates basic guarantees of religious freedom granted by Belgian law as well as by the charter of the European Union.

“The infringement on our freedom of religious practice that this new law creates is beyond debate, and we very much hope that the court will recognize that,” Pinchos Kornfeld, president of Antwerp’s Machzikei Hadas kehillah, vice chairman of the Belgian Jewish Consistoire, and chairman of its Shechitah Committee, told Hamodia.

The present legal challenges were filed last Tuesday in federal court with the authority to review and rule on the constitutionality of laws passed by Belgium’s legislative bodies.

There is reason to believe that opponents of the law could succeed in court. This past February, when asked in an advisory capacity if a draft of the Walloon law would pass legal muster, a panel of three judges wrote that it would “contradict basic human rights laws and religious rights.” A court reached a similar conclusion about the Flemish version of the law.

Despite their warning, the French-speaking Wallonia regional parliament unanimously passed the legislation creating a de facto ban on religious slaughter methods. Weeks later, Flanders followed suit, also by very wide margins.

The bill was heavily lobbied for by animal rights activists who have increasingly joined forces on the issue with nationalist elements seeking to ban religious slaughter as a means of curbing the size and influence of Muslim communities in Europe. Observers have often referred to the effect on Jewish communities as “collateral damage.”

The law has not been substantially altered since the court’s initial review, but it will now likely come before a different panel of judges who will analyze the matter as an existing law. A caveat that was added by legislators, following the court’s original statements, was a note saying that religious communities would continue to be permitted to import kosher or halal meat from outside of the affected regions. The amendment was viewed as an attempt by lawmakers to circumvent the high court’s concerns over freedom of religion.

Parliamentarians will now have a period of several weeks to respond to the suit’s claims, after which the Jewish groups will have an opportunity to file counter-briefs before judges render an opinion. The process could typically take up to a year.

In addition to arguing that the law violates freedom of religious practice, the suit also claims that it interferes with the professional free exercise of kosher butchers and shochtim, and that it is inherently discriminatory towards Jews, as those who do not eat kosher meat are unaffected by a requirement of pre-stunning. The brief cites fishermen and hunters, as well as Muslim groups that government claims have accepted pre-stunning, as examples of groups who kill animals in different ways but are unfettered by the law. It remains unclear whether the Muslim groups cited by the law’s supporters ever actually accepted any form of pre-stunning.

The Consistoire’s case is being handled by a team of three attorneys headed by Emmanuel Jacubowitz, a Brussels lawyer specializing in constitutional law. He has argued hundreds of cases before Belgium’s constitutional court.

“It’s very important that this battle be fought before the Constitutional Court only. The Jewish community can only lose if this becomes a political battle,” he told Hamodia. “Judges must never get the feeling that they’re being put under pressure or that an applicant is fighting his battle outside of Court.”

The suit filed by the CCOJB, Belgium’s arm of the World Jewish Congress, claims that the details of the present law reveal that its motivation is not purely animal welfare.

“If they are concerned about animal rights, let’s focus on the whole lifecycle of the animal; this only addressed the last 13 seconds of its life,” CCOJB’s president, Yohan Benizri, told Hamodia. “This law is not proportional. It’s understandable to want to protect animal welfare, but that does not necessitate or justify denying entire groups of their right to practice their religious slaughter methods.”

Mr. Benizri also expressed concern that should the law take effect, it could create an anti-shechitah “ripple effect” across the continent.

Slaughter without pre-stunning is presently illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Belgium’s neighbor to the north, Holland, passed a similar bill in 2012 in its lower legislative house, but before it could become law, an agreement was reached to protect religious slaughter methods. This past summer, that agreement was renewed and extended for another five years.

Belgium requires that all animals be electronically stunned before slaughter, but has given exemptions for kosher and halal slaughter, which both forbid the practice. The present laws ended those exceptions, which would make it impossible for Jews and Muslims to produce meat according to their religious laws in both Wallonia and Flanders.

While Wallonia has a relatively small Jewish population, Flanders’ municipal capitol, Antwerp, is home to one of Europe’s largest Orthodox communities.

The suit filed this week addresses only the Walloon law, as it was passed first, and hence has an earlier deadline for legal filings. Both groups are expected to file similar challenges to the Flemish law in the coming weeks.

“If this law is permitted to stand, it would send a message to Jews in Belgium that they have a choice between living here or following their religion, but they can’t do both,” said Mr. Benizri.


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