The European Court of Justice ruled Thursday that authorities can order that animals be stunned before slaughter in a case that Jewish and Muslim groups warned could curb religious freedom.
The court backed a regulation imposed in the Flemish region of Belgium to ban the slaughter of livestock that have not been stunned, on animal rights grounds.
“The court concludes that the measures contained in the decree allow 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,” the ruling said.
Belgium’s Flanders regional government issued the order in 2017, which took effect in 2019, that abattoirs must stun livestock before slaughtering them.
The argument was made that this would “reduce their suffering” but it was widely perceived as a measure targeted at the Muslim halal tradition, and one that also effectively banned the Jewish kosher ritual.
Animal rights activists had pushed for the ban. Both kosher and halal ritual slaughter requires livestock to be conscious when their throats are slit.
But Jewish and Muslim groups had argued the measure was an attack on their traditions and rituals and urged the European court to prioritize religious liberty.
Thursday’s ruling was swiftly condemned by both Jewish groups and Israel’s government.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said the decision “signals to the Jewish communities that they aren’t wanted in Europe.”
The ministry said the decision “harms freedom of worship and freedom of religion in Europe, which is a core value of the EU… It is important that a way is found to change the decision and enable Jewish EU citizens to hold Jewish practices.”
The head of the European Jewish Congress said the ruling “severely undermined” the right to perform Jewish religious practices.
“This ruling is a heavy blow to Jewish life in Europe and in essence tells Jews that our practices are no longer welcome. Telling Jews that their ways are not welcome is just a short step from telling Jews that we are no longer welcome,” Moshe Kantor said in a statement.
He said the EJC would fight the court decision.
“Europe’s Jewish communities will not rest until our fundamental rights are asserted and protected under the full weight of European law,” Kantor said.
The ruling was also denounced by the Belgian Federation of Jewish Organizations and the European Jewish Association.
“This is a sad day for European Jewry. For decades now, as animal rights have come into vogue, Kosher slaughter has come under relentless attack, and subject to repeated attempts to ban it,” EJA chairman Rabbi Menachem Margolin said in a statement.
Margolin dismissed “the entirely bogus premise” that kosher slaughter is more cruel to animals.
“What today’s ruling does is put animal welfare above the fundamental right of freedom of religion. Simply put, beast takes preference over man,” he said.
The Conference of European Rabbis said the ruling “flies in the face” of recent statements from European authorities on protecting Jewish life.
“The bans have already had a devastating impact on the Belgian Jewish community, causing supply shortages during the pandemic, and we are all very aware of the precedent this sets which challenges our rights to practice our religion,” it said in a statement.
The group also noted previous bans on ritual slaughter were pushed by the far-right.
“We now face a situation where, with no consultation of the local Jewish community, a ban has been implemented and the implications on the Jewish community will be long lasting,” it said. “Europe needs to reflect on the type of continent it wants to be. If values like freedom of religion and true diversity are integral, than the current system of law does not reflect that and needs to be urgently reviewed.”