The European Union’s highest court struck a major blow to protections for religious slaughter and freedom of religious practice with a broad ruling that permits member states to ban the production of kosher and halal meat in the name of animal welfare.
The decision upholds a de facto ban on shechitah and halal slaughter methods in most of Belgium, which came about through at 2017 law that struck religious exemptions to the nation’s requirement that animals be electronically stunned before slaughter.
In September, Jewish and Muslim community advocates were encouraged by an opinion delivered by the EU Court of Justice’s advocate general recommending that the Belgian law ran afoul of protections for religious freedom set out by EU legislators in the past, and hoped that the panel of judges would rule along the lines suggested.
Thursday’s ruling, however, not only supported Belgium’s ban, but explicitly gave license for other member states to follow suit and denied that doing so constitutes an imposition of the religious freedoms in the EU’s Charter of Rights.
Yohan Benizri, President of the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations (CCOJB), the country’s arm of the European Jewish Congress, which was one of the parties which brought the suit against the ban, said that he was “upset” and “taken aback” about the court’s decision.
“It seems that despite what EU law and the court’s own advocate general say, the court was determined to bend over backwards to preach its message that in what it sees as a ‘civilized society;’ that the last 12 minutes in the life of an animal which was raised for food in the first place is more important than any tradition or religion practiced by a human,” he told Hamodia.
The EU has its own legal requirement for animals to be stunned prior to slaughter, but its law explicitly says that exceptions should be made to permit religious slaughter methods. The pan-European body traditionally grants member states a margin of digression in how to apply laws within its borders. Central to the present case was whether Belgium’s total ban is beyond the parameters of that digression.
Yet the court determined that the intention of the EU’s slaughter law was not to preclude individual member states from imposing more stringent restrictions in the name of animal welfare.
The court also found that the ban did not contravene the EU’s protection of religious freedom since the law “is limited to one aspect of the specific ritual act of slaughter, and that act of slaughter is not, by contrast, prohibited.” It therefore stated that Belgium’s law allowed for “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.”
Mr. Benizri was especially disturbed by the court’s decision to deem a regulation about stunning a minor aspect of religious practice.
“If they had come and said, ‘let’s all be vegetarians and look at the whole chain of food production and at hunting’ that would have been one thing. But who are they to tell me what my religion prescribes and decide how important or not it is. That is a major violation of the separation of church and state roles,” he said.
The ruling was celebrated by the ban’s supporters. Ben Weyts, minister for animal welfare in Belgium’s Flemish region who proposed the ban cheered the fact that it “opens the door to a ban in the whole of Europe.”
Anthony Godfroid, an attorney for GAIA, an animal rights group which lobbies for bans on religious slaughter throughout Europe and acted as an intervener in the case said the ruling settles the debate over the legality of such laws.
“The animals have won and religious hardliners have had to back down,” he said.
Shortly after Belgium’s laws were passed, CCOJB, the Jewish Consistoire, together with several other Jewish groups and meat industry professionals, and with the support of the Lawfare Project, challenged the law in Belgium’s highest constitutional court, the Council of State. Their claims were joined by similar suits from several Muslim organizations. Last year, Belgian judges on its high court avoided a decision, instead asking the EU to determine whether the ban contradicted European law.
The case was heard by judges in Luxemburg in July. Gerard Hogan, an advocate general of the Court of Justice, advised that the EU members should be bound by its own 2009 law on stunning which carved out religious exceptions. The court usually follows the advice of the advocate general, but is not bound to it and have often departed from their advice on matters of religious practice.
The matter will now be remanded to the Belgian constitutional courts to weigh whether to accept the EU’s ruling or to decide that the law contradicts its own nation’s guarantees of religious freedom. Should they also rule in favor of the ban, which has wide popular support in Belgium, the next recourse would be to bring suit in the EU court of human rights in Strasbourg.
Many Jewish groups expressed fears that the court’s decision would indeed encourage more European nations to take steps against shechitah.
Slaughter without pre-stunning is presently illegal in Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Switzerland and Iceland without any exceptions, and Poland is weighing a ban on exporting kosher and halal meat.
Mr. Benizri was optimistic that few nations would take such a cue.
“Counties have seen plenty of examples of shechitah bans in Europe and those that decided against them did so because they understand that doing so is essentially telling Jews and Muslims, ‘you are not welcome here.’ Belgian Jews are now in the unfortunate position of trusting that our neighbors will not be as restrictive as our own country has decided to be,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr. Benizri has serious worries on the effects the court’s ruling could have.
“Jews have always been law abiding citizens and we used the tools at our disposal to protect Jewish life in the courts. Now, we’ve been told that the law we always thought protected our religious freedoms don’t actually do that in reality,” he said. “This is a message that’s inconsistent with European values and makes me concerned about where Europe is heading.”