Washington, DC – The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) today released the following new report on ritual slaughter laws and the range of restrictions across Europe:
Dietary laws pertaining to the slaughter of animals are integral religious mandates for many, in particular for Jews and Muslims who are required to eat meat certified as kosher or halal, respectively. To ensure proper certification, an animal must be slaughtered according to methods of shechita and dhabīḥah. Shechita refers to the process of slaughter handed down by oral tradition and codified in halakha (Jewish religious laws). Among a number of requirements, the person performing the ritual (shochet) must cut the neck with a knife in a back and forth motion and sever the trachea and esophagus of the animal. Dhabīḥah, prescribed by Islamic law from the Quran, involves using a well-sharpened knife to make a swift, deep incision that cuts the carotid artery, trachea, and jugular veins but leaves the spinal cord intact. Dietary laws such as these traditionally serve a variety of functions for adherents, including fulfilling health, philosophical, ethical, and spiritual needs.
Complicating the ability of Jews and Muslims to comply with these religious practices are laws across Europe restricting ritual slaughter. Animal rights activists and others contend that shechita and dhabīḥah are inhumane methods of slaughter, and as a result have sought to limit the practice by requiring stunning the animal at certain points in the process or banning the practice outright. Some countries have laws that require an animal be stunned before the cut is performed (“pre-cut stunning”), after the cut is performed (“post-cut stunning”), or at the same time as the cut (“concurrent sedation”).
These laws force individuals to abandon deeply held religious doctrine and imply a message of exclusion to all those who seek to follow their religion’s dietary requirements. While some Islamic authorities accept certain types of stunning in ritual slaughter, there is virtually no such allowance by Jewish authorities. The U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Elan Carr called such restrictions “disgraceful.”
From the US Library of Congress:
Jewish and Islamic methods of slaughter developed over centuries, partly to provide for a method of killing that minimized the animal’s suffering. Legislation requiring stunning prior to slaughter began to be adopted in parts of Europe in the late nineteenth century. In 1933, Adolf Hitler, shortly after becoming chancellor, banned the slaughter of animals in Germany without prior stunning, which led to an anguished rabbinic debate on whether observant Jews could eat meat slaughtered with prior stunning under these circumstances. The rabbis reached a general consensus that prior stunning was unacceptable even under the extreme situation of Nazi Germany. Since then, virtually no rabbinic authorities have found that stunning prior to slaughter is consistent with Jewish doctrine. Under Islamic law, some authorities reject all forms of stunning prior to slaughter, while other authorities accept certain types of prior stunning.
Given the sincerely-held religious beliefs of observant Jews and many Muslims, requiring stunning before slaughter clearly implicates international human rights law on freedom of religion, including the European Convention on Human Rights.
Several European countries do not allow derogations from the general requirement of prior stunning. These include Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark, and Slovenia. Switzerland and Lichtenstein require prior stunning except for poultry. Finland requires concurrent sedation; legislation is pending that would require prior stunning. At the subnational level, two of the three regions of Belgium have recently enacted laws requiring prior stunning, which will become effective in 2019 unless overturned by litigation pending in Belgium’s constitutional court.
Some countries mandate post-cut stunning, including Austria, Estonia, Greece, and Latvia.
Other European countries permit derogations from the general requirements to allow for religious slaughter. The cases of Cyprus, France, Germany, Luxembourg, and Spain illustrate different forms that regulation of ritual slaughter may take, while Poland, where religious slaughter is currently legal, offers an interesting history concerning the legality of religious slaughter.
Download the Ritual Slaughter Factsheet