Jews and Muslims say Belgian animal cruelty law trammels religious freedom

A butcher arranges halal meats at a butcher shop in Paris, France, in March 2012. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

PARIS (RNS) — Jewish and Muslim communities in Belgium are seeking to overturn a recent ban on the ritual slaughter of animals that they say is really discrimination cloaked in an animal protection mantle.

More than 50 religious groups have lodged complaints with the country’s Constitutional Court in the hope of repealing the new legislation, which went into effect New Year’s Day. The court is expected to rule within the next two months.

Opponents of the ban say it is not based on science.

“It’s a decision that threatens freedom of religion because ritual slaughter is part of our religion,” said Albert Guigui, Brussels’ chief rabbi. “We find it’s unjust and unjustifiable since there’s no proof that ritual slaughter causes more suffering than standard slaughter. On the other hand, pre-stunning is not always effective, causing animals to remain conscious during slaughter.”

The Muslim halal and Jewish kosher rituals require that animals should be in perfect health when they are slaughtered by having their throats slit and their blood drained. Under a new law, animals will have to be rendered unconscious — or stunned — before being killed, a method that animal rights advocates argue is more humane.

The law prohibiting animal slaughter without stunning was approved by the Belgian Parliament in July 2017. The northern region of Flanders, where one of the largest ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in Europe is centered around the city of Antwerp, was the first to implement the ban.

The southern French-speaking Wallonia region will put similar restrictions in place in September. By the end of the year only the Brussels region, home to a sizable Muslim community, will continue to allow slaughter methods without pre-stunning.

Belgium, red, is in western Europe. Map courtesy of Creative Commons

About 30,000 Jews and 500,000 Muslims are estimated to live in Belgium, out of a total population of 11 million. Apart from their concerns about religious freedom, they fear the ban will increase food prices because halal and kosher meat will have to be brought in from other countries. The new legislation does not prevent such meat from being imported.

“Kosher meat is normally more expensive than standard meat because it has to be prepared according to strict rules. Now there will be even more complications that will push its price up,” said Guigui. “It will also have a wider economic impact because butchers and abattoirs will have to close down.”

Animal rights groups say that the practice of slaughtering animals without stunning is inhumane and that their support for the ban is motivated by concerns over animal welfare rather than religious discrimination.

“It’s never been an issue of banning religious slaughter but a question of animal welfare. If there is a technology that prevents sentient beings from suffering unnecessarily, then it should be applied,” said Michel Vandenbosch, president of the Belgium-based animal welfare group Global Action in the Interest of Animals.

“It can take several minutes before a cow that has had its throat slit becomes unconscious. This means several minutes of extreme suffering,” he added.

The introduction of the ban coincides with growing tensions across Europe over the balance between animal welfare and religious freedom.

Although European Union laws require animals to be incapable of feeling pain when they are killed, several European countries offer religious exemptions that allow halal and kosher meat. Others, such as Norway, Sweden and Slovenia, do not.

A halal ritual slaughter, known as dhabihah or zabiha in Islamic law, of a sheep. Photo by Mostafa Meraji/Creative Commons

However, in recent years there’s been a trend toward removing these exemptions. In 2014, Denmark instituted a ban on the ritual slaughter of animals without pre-stunning.

Currently, Jews in Denmark import their kosher meat. Danish Muslim leaders, however, say their community isn’t as affected by the new rule because Islam allows for pre-stunning in ritual slaughter.

Meanwhile, the Jewish community has vowed to overturn the ban, instituted by ministerial decree, saying that it was a symbolic measure against its community as the ritual slaughter had not been performed in Denmark for many years.

“There was no debate, no evidence, no reasoning behind it,” said Jair Melchior, chief rabbi of the Jewish community of Denmark. “We will continue to fight this.”

Danish officials said the country has long had restrictive rules concerning the ritual slaughter of animals and the only change was to remove the exception.

The European Union — of which Denmark is a member — requires pre-stunning. However, the bloc’s rules allow for exemptions on religious grounds according to a ruling by the European Court of Justice a decade ago.

As these exemptions are being phased out in some countries, Jews and Muslims say their communities are being targeted and used to score political points as the power of right-wing populists — who often use anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric — continues to rise.

For example, the legislation in Belgium was initially proposed by the state of Flanders’ animal welfare minister Ben Weyts, a right-wing Flemish nationalist.

Minority groups wonder what other rights they will lose, pointing to attempts to ban circumcision in Germany and Denmark over the past few years, which would mainly affect Jews and Muslims.

“The Muslim community is now threatened by laws that are hostile to freedom,” said the Muslim Executive of Belgium, the official Muslim interlocutor of the Belgian federal government that is part of the lawsuit against the ban. “We expect a repeal of these laws in Flanders and Wallonia, which completely contradict our constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.”

(Bhatti reported from Berlin.)

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Elena Berton and Jabeen Bhatti


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  • I’m opposed to wanton cruelty to animals, but I draw the line at the notion that animals have rights equal to those of human beings. If, as a species, we are going to continue to be carnivores, then it doesn’t make much sense to split hairs over the relative merits of different forms of slaughter.

    The fascinating part of this article to me is that it illustrates yet again the kinds of conflicts that happen when ancient religious practices meet modern sensibilities. Ritual slaughter, like many religious customs, developed for health reasons and reflected the best known science of the times. Not so today.

    When scientific knowledge and societal sensibilities outpace religious customs, tension is inevitable.

  • Religious Freedom would be a great thing if religionists allowed themselves the doctrinal flexibility to adjust their beliefs, claims and practices to the ongoing march of sense and sensibilities. Since—-being tied to ancient scriptures which are often pure baloney—–they don’t, it is up to everyone else to adopt the laws and standards. No, you can’t just stone people on orders from clerics. THAT one is settled. No, you can’t mistreat the rest of the Creation you claim to be living in, whether that is other people, other people’s minds, animals or the sustainability of the earth. THAT one is still a work in process.

    All we need from religionists is a commitment from them to be honest, on the assumption that God calls them to be honest. A few of them volunteer this much in ethics, and the rest of them have to be either defeated or dragged along, or both.

  • “Animal cruelty laws trammel religious freedoms.”

    The only sane response: “So what?” If your religion mandates animal abuse, then your religion is garbage.

  • Slaughter is only one aspect of possible animal cruelty. With some exceptions (free range, etc.) cruelty to animals is present from the start. I’ve toured a poultry operation and it is a horrible existence for those creatures.

  • I agree with the last sentence, rock. The issue is how to resolve the tension, especially in a world where people from different cultures are increasingly intermixing. A lot that one culture considers “normal” just isn’t normal in other cultures. And, the process of assimilation, or creating a common culture, is gonna have this sort of issue to deal with. That process will hopefully reach the point that it is reflected in law only when it is already pretty much incorporated into social thinking. But even then, there will always be holdouts. Is that what is happening in Belgium, given that other areas mentioned in the article (Flanders and France) are accepting the new rules regarding stunning animals before slaughter?

    Or, is this white Christian power playing it’s usual dominant role?

    I don’t know any more about where to draw lines when the issue is “religious freedom” or even personal freedom – on this last one think guns or childhood immunizations. How do we form communities any more?

  • You raise an important questions. Should the law reflect the will of the majority first and foremost or should it’s highest priority be to protect the minority? Ideally, we want it to do both, but that’s becoming increasingly difficult in societies that are becoming less and less homogenous. Interesting times!

  • Protect the minority? Sometimes. But when it comes to something like childhood immunizations, we are seeing that too many refusing immunizations leads to the spread of diseases and presents a real danger to others. I used to think that should be an issue of religious or personal freedom – but think now we may have to have firmer laws.

    One other – female genital mutilation. That is what we view it as and what we call it. But, it is culturally normative in some cultures – not a “mutilation” – and some folks who practice that are now living in the U.S.. I don’t want that to be legal in this country .

    Having said the above, I want there to be care about protecting religious and personal freedom. But it is not an absolute. Maybe what we need to do is argue about it, take one step in one direction then a step in the other direction. That is how we finally got to gay marriage being legal. I wish it was easier to come to an answer, but maybe that is the way it has to be to evolve.

  • “Religious Freedom would be a great thing if religionists allowed themselves the doctrinal flexibility to adjust their beliefs, claims and practices to the ongoing march of sense and sensibilities.”

    Well, they could switch out the Nicene Creed and insert the Platform of the Democratic Party.

    That gets updated periodically to reflect at least one portion of the population’s “sense and sensibilities”.

  • Belgium lacks the equivalent of a First Amendment and a history of opposing trampling on religious rights.

    The answer to your question would be different there, or in France, or in the UK, than in the USA.

  • Anybody can still belong to any religion in Belgium, they just have to comply with the same laws as everybody else, even if they are religious. Seems completely non-outrageous to me.

  • White black people are nuts…eat a real balanced diet. A number of religions are cult like. Some religions embrace diversity, dont endorce being colored and crazy, and skip pirating for organized modern systems .

  • It was not uncommon to chop off a chickens head and let it run around to bleed the chicken. Turkeys get hung upside down and then their throat is cut. ISIS wants to cut off everyone’s head. There is a reason they call it the slaughter house.

  • I can’t for the life of me see what is wrong with stunning an animal before slaughter. Here is the reality of slaughtering an animal without stunning it first:

    The ‘Opinion of the Scientific Panel on Animal Health and Welfare’ on a request from the [EU] Commission’, states in part:

    ‘The animals which are slaughtered have systems for detecting and feeling pain and, as a result of the cut and the blood loss, if not stunned, their welfare will be poor because of pain, fear and other adverse effects. The cuts which are used in order that rapid bleeding occurs involve substantial tissue damage in areas well supplied with pain receptors. The rapid decrease in blood pressure which follows the blood loss is readily detected by the conscious animal and elicits fear and panic. Poor welfare also results when conscious animals inhale blood because of bleeding into the trachea. Without stunning, the time between cutting through the major blood vessels and insensibility, as deduced from behavioural and brain response, is up to 20 seconds in sheep, up to 25 seconds in pigs, up to 2 minutes in cattle, up to 2.5 or more minutes in poultry, and sometimes 15 minutes or more in fish.’

    Published in ‘The EFSA Journal’ (2004), 45, 1-29] or see:

    Why are Jews and Muslims being so stubborn in Belgium? Here is what is happening in Australia:

    ‘Islamic and Jewish leaders in Australia largely accept the stunning of animals. Halal and Kosher slaughter requires (amongst other things) that the animal not be injured at the time of slaughter. As electrical stunning (for sheep) and percussion stunning (of cattle) doesn’t injure the animal — stunning is part of acceptable ritual slaughter in Australia both for domestic consumption and export.’

    If stunning before slaughter can be accepted in Australia, then why can’t it be accepted elsewhere? This whole situation makes no sense.

  • In FriendlyGoat’s view religious freedom would be a great thing if Jews and Muslims adopted his flexible sense and sensibilities. But then it wouldn’t be religious freedom. It would be conformity to the Zeitgeist.

  • You like ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram, I take it? Those guys are, after all, very faithful to pure Islam. The problem is that they have no sense and sensibilities. In fact, they would probably kill you dead just for looking cross-eyed at them. What kind of nuts have our conservatives become these days—–to be supporting this nonsense, just so you can think you are bugging a liberal (me)?

  • What you propose is secularist totalitarianism. Under the guise of “doctrinal flexibility” you carry an agenda of complete intolerance, because according to your criterion religions would have to conform to secular presuppositions. I guess you know quite well that Judaism cannot rewrite the Torah or change its commandments. A religion which changes its basic doctrines ipso facto loses its credibility. It would be better if secularists changed their own doctrinal inflexibility if they want to demonstrate that they are not themselves religionists in disguise.

  • Of course, Judaism and Christianity have ALREADY bent their doctrines to accommodate social progress many times throughout history–it was only a couple centuries ago that they were defending slavery as a righteous and holy institution, for example. But they always pretend that THIS time is the first time.

  • Any religion which maintains and defends falsehood in its origination stories after learning better already has no credibility. Its adherents just don’t know it. Medical doctors are required by each other, by educated patients, and by societies to advance and modify their personal practices to accommodate the best knowledge available. They are not permitted to harm people in the present by insisting on treating patients with now-corrected quackism from some ancient era. There is no reason that religion should not be “practiced” in the same manner and EXPECTED by all others to exist only on demonstrably honest ethics. Medicine and religion are not so different in nature that we should require one to be truthful and excuse the other for willful lying because no one can rewrite “the texts”.

  • Mglass, above, has cited a report noting the times required for an animal to become insensate when not initially stunned before cuts are made to trachea and major arteries. These are not inconsiderable times.

    Even if there is some debate over the duration of pain and distress, why not err on the side of humaneness? Nothing is lost by doing so.

  • Aren’t there numerous interpretations and commentaries post-dating the Torah? I don’t see Jews stoning adulterers, etc today. So, laws have in fact been de facto rewritten, have they not?

  • I don’t know why you think of yourself as friendly as I don’t take your remark as friendly.

    I am not for unrestricted religious freedom. I support American Constitutional jurisprudence on the subject. Do you? I am merely against your idea that religious freedom is OK only if Jews and Muslims have to agree with your opinions of what is modern. I (and many Muslims) would argue that ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram are all modern and incorrect manifestations of Islam that have adjusted their beliefs, claims and practices to their ongoing march of their sense and sensibilities. Those groups are not representative of mainstream Islam any more that your view of religious freedom is representative of American Constitutional jurisprudence. It could be easily argued that “modern sense and sensibilities” gave us the horrors of the 20th Century. Every horror was justified in the minds of their advocates. Modern revolutions in the name of “progress” have killed many more than ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram combined.

  • “Or, is this white Christian power playing it’s usual dominant role?”

    Are you arguing that white Christians are dominating Jews and Muslim in secular Belgium and France? And if so, do you believe this is right or wrong?

  • I call myself FriendlyGoat because my wife and I have some small pet goats who are friendly. I am for Constitutional jurisprudence of religious freedom as long as it correctly determines via interpretation that our freedom from religion is as valid and important as our freedom of religion. As for you (and others) suddenly defending ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram because you realize you must do so in order to also defend the excesses and errors of Trumpism, well, ask your shrink when, why and how your marbles fell out. Am I friendly enough now?

  • In a word, no. I never defended ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram. You merely say I do. I didn’t vote for Trump or supported him. You merely think I do. FYI, back in the day I voted for Obama. I lean libertarian in philosophy but have been at times a registered Democrat and a registered Republican. I am not an evangelical. I am not a Muslim, but my libertarian ideas allow them religious freedom within our constitutional traditions, i.e. the First Amendment. Do you usually tell people who disagree with you that they have or need a shrink and then expect to be considered friendly?

  • LB – the following point is made in the article: “Jews and Muslims say their communities are being targeted and used to score political points as the power of right-wing populists — who often use anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant rhetoric — continues to rise.”

    I think it is important to recognize the atmosphere that is present that makes this such an issue for the Jewish community. Notice this from the article: “Minority groups wonder what other rights they will lose, pointing to attempts to ban circumcision in Germany and Denmark over the past few years,…”

    I think it is important that those who vote in ways that interfere with the freedom of others do some examination of conscience to be sure they are doing it for valid reasons that are based on the issue, not some vague fear of “otherness”, including the “otherness” of a minority religion, ethnicity, skin color, language, etc. And, we all know that there was a time when severe discrimination against Jews was rampant all across Christian Europe. The history is there. We should all be questioning if it is still present.

  • I agree with you, except the article talks about right-wing populists and doesn’t point a finger at Christians. Europe is rather secular, particularly compared to America, and many of its Christians are only nominally so. I don’t see Christian leaders in the forefront of this movement. It was in liberal, secular San Francisco that a move was made in 2010 to ban circumcision. It was blocked in the courts.

  • You questioned my friendliness BEFORE I suggested your shrink. As for Libertarians, I never heard of one who thought freedom of religion for some people was more important than freedom from religion for the rest of the people. And I never heard of one who was crazy enough to “argue that ISIS and Taliban and Boko Haram are all modern and incorrect manifestations of Islam that have adjusted their beliefs, claims and practices to their ongoing march of their sense and sensibilities”. Sense and sensibilities do not murder, rape and coerce people in the name of God. The fact that you think (from the Libertarian Smokescreen) that you can make fun of those of us who actually do give a hoot about both civic society and DECENCY in religion is why I am being unfriendly. Your derisive tone at me from the get-go is indistinguishable from that of the Trumpees.

  • Good point. However, I would not put it past right-wing populists to use whatever elements of Christian fundamentalists there are in Europe. Nor would I put it past European fundamentalists to either knowingly allow themselves to be used or to be tricked into it. I suppose, though, that my comment is based more on how I perceive right-wing populism works in the U.S. than how it works in Europe.

    As for liberals looking to do something like ban circumcision … It is a good example of why it is so hard to draw lines around religious freedom and individual rights and civil laws. I would like to ban what we in this country call “female genital mutilation” – even though it is culturally acceptable in many other countries. Why do I find one acceptable (circumcision) and the other abhorrent (FGM)? My own cultural embeddedness?

    You raise good questions. Thanks.

  • Ritual animal slaughter practices have nothing to do with terrorism. Their roots are in keeping meats uncontaminated in a age before refrigeration and modern preservatives.

  • The scientific evidence is that it is one to three seconds, which is not significant.

    It is one of the reasons why throat cutting is used by thugs and in guerilla warfare – it’s quiet and quick.

  • “Your lamb shall be without blemish, a male of the first year: ye shall take it out from the sheep, or from the goats: And ye shall keep it up until the fourteenth day of the same month: and the whole assembly of the congregation of Israel shall kill it in the evening. And they shall take of the blood, and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.”

    You missed one point, you missed the whole law. Thank you LORD Jesus for coming to be the lamb of God for me.

  • It’s more than one to three seconds for several animals.

    And, why not err on the side of precluding suffering?

  • I suppose it does, but most Jewish Americans and Jewish Israelis are better educated than to actually, really, personally believe in a 6,000 year old earth.

  • The reason why adulterers and other criminals are not stoned nowadays is because there is no theocracy in Israel. A theocracy in the Jewish sense implies a rebuilt and functioning Temple, a Sanhedrin, the restoration of the Davidic monarchy, and, most importantly the Return of the visible Divine Presence (i.e. the Cloud of Glory that appeared above the Tabernacle and the later Temple).

    These conditions will be fulfilled in the future, and at that time all the commandments of the Torah can be fulfilled again. These laws have not been rewritten, but cannot be applied without a functioning theocracy.

    Another obvious reason for the non-applicability of capital punishment laws today is that in a diaspora situation these laws do not apply. Jews in the diaspora are expected to live according to the laws of the land, with the exception of those ritual laws that apply everywhere where they are, for example the laws of Sabbath and Festivals, Brit Milah (circumcision), Kashrut (food laws), Shechitah (kosher slaughter of animals), the laws of menstrual purification for women, &c.

  • What liberal American Jews believe or not is not relevant for the faith of Orthodox Judaism. Orthodox and Ultra-Orthodox (Chassidic)Judaism believe the Torah to be true and historically accurate. Moreover, a modern state doesn’t enter the question of the truth of religious beliefs, since this very question would undermine the constitutional principles of religious liberty and freedom of opinion upheld by the state.

    You should carefully distinguish between the truth of an assertion, and the liberty to make that assertion.

  • You’re saying that religionists WANT to continue spinning falsehood after actual knowledge leapfrogs over what was known when scriptures were written? If that is the case, I guess the rest of us have the “religious freedom” to oppose their spin, don’t we?
    I mean, we all have the same right to EXPECT honesty from religious preaching as we have to EXPECT that a can labeled Green Beans does not contain Motor Oil when you open it.

    When religion is correctly boiled down to “Be truthful, Be Fair, Be Kind” (as they all should be), then of course there cannot be complaints about credibility. But the rest of it? We are not Constitutionally called to live in Snow Jobs Forever because liars get a pass if they are religious liars.

  • What are you talking about? Do you really believe that orthodox Jews and Christians are deliberately spinning falsehoods? Come on, you are just spewing liberal secularist propaganda which has nothing to do with serious science.

  • Yes, OF COURSE I believe that Conservative Jews, Conservative Christians and Conservative Muslims are deliberately spinning falsehoods. Scriptural Literalism was more excusable in the distant past when they might not have known better. But now all of their top leaders have access to education and are under moral obligation to tell a more developed truth to the followers and to everyone else. For instance, since you now know that there is no possibility of enough water appearing from nowhere for a worldwide flood on the scriptural timeline, and no possibility of finding and packing all species onto an ark, then no one of good faith continues to claim that the story of Noah is true.

  • You are not aware of the possibilities of interpreting the story of Noach. For instance, “world wide” in the context of the story might simply refer to the inhabited world. Moreover, there are scientists who contradict what you say and who see no insurmountable difficulties in a literal world-wide flood.

    In my view it is a bit childish to focus on these things. Thomas Aquinas long ago definitely set the parameters for the harmony of faith and reason when he said that if there arises an apparent conflict between the data of divine revelation on the one hand and those of natural reason and human science on the other, this conflict can never be real, ultimately, because it is the same G-d who created nature and gave his revelation. It is either the case that fallible human science has overrated its own findings or misinterpreted the data of nature, or, the other possibility, that something belonging to the deposit of faith has been theologically overrated because of a wrong assumption or by misinterpreting the original data of Scripture and Tradition.

    Judaism and Christianity both strongly reject any dual theory of truth. In the end, divine revelation and human science must be in perfect harmony, but the way to the end can at times be rough because of seemingly insolvable problems. When this happens, one has to wait until more light can be shed on these problems.

    I find it a bit ridiculous that you introduce matters like these in the context of a discussion about religious liberty. They have nothing to do with it. For even if a religion would be utterly false and a historical fraud, people still have the constitutional liberty to believe in it. Take Mormonism for example. The real point of democracy is that the State doesn’t ulitmately decide about the truth and falsehood of scientific or philosophical statements and positions. This is left to the domain of free discussion and interaction in the public sphere. People can organize themselves in academic institutions and give each other titles like “doctor” or “professor”, “”PhD”, and so on, and all this is from a political perspective nothing else but part of the rights and liberties of free association and assembly. These same rights and liberties belong to religions, philosophical and hermetic clubs and so on.

  • We are having this discussion because you opened it with a reply to me. Please understand that I did not set out to assault you. That said, I am not going to ever agree that all scripture is true, because it has to be defended as true, because a lot of people say it is all true. If you wanted me to agree with you that we are all self-centered, imperfect human beings who would be better people by praying for forgiveness of our individual wrongdoing and asking in our hearts always for help to do better, to do right, to be loving and forgiving people, I will absolutely agree with you. I’m thankful for Jesus and not one who will knock what He is about and is for.

    If you want me to agree that we would have all been righteous if only Adam and Eve had not had a “fall” in the Garden of Eden, I’m not going there with you. My reconciliation of faith and reason is that we are all called to Be Truthful, Be Fair, Be Kind. That’s it. For me, that means whenever scripture is not in alignment with observable reality, then it’s the scripture that needs the modification. Muslims have their particular scripture from the sayings of their so-called final prophet. I don’t buy any of it. Mormons have their Book of Mormon. I don’t buy any of that either. So, it’s not some extraordinary jump for me to likewise not defend things in the Jewish or Christian Bible which are increasingly identifiable as mere lore, legend and myth.

    Yes, in America, people have some Constitutional protection to believe whatever they want to believe in religious teaching. Me too, of course, and I just summarized a position for you above which is every bit as good as yours, as that of the Mormons, as that of the Muslims and as that of Aquinas. Remember, I’m talking about us all committing to Be Truthful, Be Fair, Be Kind with respect to all people and all tangible issues (as best we know how, or knew how 30 years ago, or might know how 30 years from now as knowledge continues to unfold.) Noah’s story doesn’t make the cut.
    Jesus’s story would, if we could just get people to stop loading it with conditional baloney.