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European Court declares kosher slaughter inhumane, and violates freedom of religion

editor - 13 January 2021

On 17 December 2020 the Grand Chamber of the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that a Decree by the Flemish Region of Belgium that requires animals to be stunned prior to slaughter to reduce their suffering does not contravene European law.

This is a remarkable and very concerning judgment by Europe’s highest court. According to Dr. Matthijs de Blois, one of Europe’s leading experts on religion and law, “the judgement is a serious violation of the enjoyment of the freedom of religion in Europe by religious minorities.”

Dr. Mark Goldfeder, Director of the National Jewish Advocacy Center and founding editor of the Cambridge University Series on Law and Judaism, described the ruling as “factually wrong, legally problematic, discriminatorily hypocritical and systemically dangerous.”

The case concerned Belgian legislation that prohibits slaughter of livestock unless they have first been stunned into unconsciousness. Both Muslim Halal and Jewish kosher rituals require the animal to be conscious when it is slaughtered. It is estimated that Belgium is home to about 30,000 Jews (many of whom are orthodox) and 350,000 Muslims, out of a total population of 11.5 million. Kosher slaughter is known as “shechita”,

“Shechita” is a procedure required by Jewish dietary laws (which are known as “kashrut”). It is performed by an approved person (shochet), who uses a very long sharp knife to sever the windpipe (trachea) and food pipe (esophagus. In the case of cattle, the soft tissues in the neck are sliced through without the knife touching the spinal cord, in the course of which four major blood vessels are severed. No undue pressure may be applied to the knife, which must be extremely sharp. The procedure is executed with the intention of causing a rapid drop in blood pressure in the brain and loss of consciousness, to render the animal insensitive to pain and to exsanguinate in a prompt and precise action.

In essence, the Court held that national parliaments are entitled to restrict the freedom of religion, that is guaranteed under European law (Article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU), where that is necessary and proportionate in order to reflect “changes in values and idea”. In this case, the region of Flanders in Belgium is entitled to place animal welfare above the right of Muslims and Jews to follow their ancient religious customs.

De Blois: “This openness to modern ideas adopted by the Court (in imitation of the European Court of Human Rights) endangers the freedom of religion which protects rituals that have existed for thousands of years. Against the dark background of European history, which is full of examples of the suppression of Jewish religious practices, including the prohibition of ritual slaughter, this is a sad observation.”

The Court concludes that stunning animals is more humane than kosher or halal slaughter: “a scientific consensus has emerged that prior stunning is the optimal means of reducing the animal’s suffering at the time of killing.” But it is highly questionable whether this is correct. According to Goldfeder, “there is no such scientific consensus. Research done by Dr. Temple Grandin, perhaps the world’s leading expert on the humane treatment of animals for slaughter, found that when shechita is done properly the animals show little or no stress reaction to the ritual cut before losing consciousness. In her words, ‘It appears that the animal is not aware that its throat has been cut.’There is no evidence that kosher slaughter is in any way ‘crueler’ than stunning.”

The Court’s reasoning can be contrasted with the United States, where the Federal Humane Slaughter Act provides that “a method of slaughter whereby the animal suffers loss of consciousness by anemia of the brain caused by the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument” is just as humane as stunning prior to slaughter. As Nathan Lewis has observed, Congress based its views on “the scientific conclusions of 74 named experts of veterinary science, including the detailed opinion of a Nobel Prize winner in physiology or medicine who had personally witnessed kosher slaughter and declared that it fulfills ‘every requirement demanded by the dictates of mercy.’ They said that there were ‘more than 800 notable authorities in the field of physiology’ who had approved of shechita as humane”. The legislation has been upheld by the US Supreme Court, which affirmed a Federal Court ruling that “stunning and Jewish ritual slaughter ‘are alternative methods,’ and that each ‘is supported by legislative history as a justifiable legislative determination that the stated method of slaughter is indeed humane.’”.

This case reflects a growing tendency of the European Court of Justice to allow European and national legislators to ignore or override the religious beliefs of minorities in Europe. In November 2019, the Court ruled in the Psagot Wineries case that the European Commission is entitled to require importers of products from Judea and Samaria to label these as “made in the West Bank” – thus imposing a particular political interpretation of history that effectively ignores the millennia-long connection between the Jewish people and the territory known for centuries as “Judea and Samaria”.

This is a further sign of how Europe is, step by step, abandoning its own Judeo-Christian background, heritage and values. Goldfeder: this ruling sets “a dangerous precedent for religious groups in European countries. It demonstrates an utter lack of respect for religious tradition and a willingness to dispose of religious rights in the name of fealty to dubious scientific claims and shifting cultural whims. The message such a ruling sends is that religious minorities are not welcome in the EU.”

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