(Dec. 31, 2020) On December 17, 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union ruled that a decree requiring that animals undergo a reversible (temporary) stunning procedure before slaughter is not an illegal infringement of freedom of religion as guaranteed by the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
At issue was a 2017 decree issued by the government of the Flemish region in Belgium prohibiting animals from being slaughtered without prior stunning. The Belgian region of Wallonia issued a similar decree, also in 2017. In recent years, several European countries have adopted rules requiring that animals be stunned before being slaughtered in order to reduce the animals’ suffering. However, stunning an animal before slaughter is incompatible with the religious practices of many observant Jews and Muslims. Some countries provide exemptions for religious slaughter, but others do not. The 2017 Flemish decree requiring stunning before slaughter does not provide for any exception, and was therefore challenged by several Jewish and Muslim associations on the ground that it prevents believers from practicing their religion.
The case ended up before Belgium’s Constitutional Court, which in turn asked the European Court of Justice to issue a preliminary ruling on whether barring religious slaughter infringes religious freedom under article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The associations also contended that the decree infringes upon the E.U.’s Regulation No. 1099/2009 of 24 September 2009 on the Protection of Animals at the Time of Killing.
The Court of Justice found that the principle that an animal should be stunned prior to being killed, which was established by Regulation No. 1099/2009, meets the main objective of the protection of animal welfare. But while Regulation No. 1099/2009 provides a religious exemption to that rule, the Court found that this does not prevent Member States from adopting more extensive protections of animals at the time of slaughter.
The Court then went on to evaluate whether the decree violated article 10 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Court noted that requiring reversible stunning, contrary to the precepts of Jewish and Muslim believers, was indeed a limitation of the freedom to manifest religion. This limitation is permissible, however, because it is restricted to only one aspect of the specific ritual act of slaughter, and it promotes animal welfare, which is an objective of general interest recognized by the European Union. The Court found that the restriction is proportional to the objective, and noted that the decree does not prevent the circulation of meat products derived from animals that have undergone ritual slaughter in another country.