The New York Times recently reported on an interesting (and unsettling) animal law development in a European Union member country. According to the report, an area of Belgium – Flanders – adopted a law that eliminates any religious exception to the otherwise generally applicable animal welfare law requirement that an animal harvested for food be stunned prior to slaughter. The law took effect as of the first of the year, and is similar to a measure adopted in the Belgian region of Wallonia that will take effect in September.

The theory behind stunning is to ensure that the slaughtering be painless. On its face, this would seem to be a reasonable animal welfare measure. However, as the Times noted, a deeper look into the matter raises a disturbing issue.

Both Jewish and Muslim law require that an animal be in perfect health prior to slaughtering. The pertinent religious authorities have interpreted this requirement as precluding stunning prior to slaughter. Thus, the measure would basically ban Jewish (kosher) and Muslim (halal) slaughtering methods, pursuant to which the animal’s throat is slit, severing vital blood vessels with the animal losing consciousness seconds later. It is asserted by its proponents that the method required by religious law is humane and painless. Apparently, when shechita is properly performed, the animal is rendered insensate before it can feel the cut.

The Flemish measure was supported by a Belgian animal rights group, Global Action in the Interest of Animals. However, the measure apparently originated with an individual described by the Times as a right-wing nationalist. Similar measures reportedly have been supported in other countries by right-wing politicians who are opposed to growing Muslim populations.

When it was originally passed in 2017, the president of the European Jewish Congress (EJC) condemned the Flemish measure and characterized it as follows:

It attacks the very core of our culture and religious practice and our status as equal citizens with equal rights in a democratic society. We call on legislators to step back from the brink of the greatest assault on Jewish religious rights in Belgium since the Nazi occupation of the country in World War Two.

The EJC has noted further that Flanders is where half of Belgium’s Jews live and where the majority of Belgium’s kosher meat facilities are located.

The root of the EJC’s concern appears to stem, not only from the current effect of the law on religious liberty, but also from the fact that a similar law was adopted in Nazi Germany in 1933. As noted in a recent report on European slaughter laws and exceptions by the Global Legal Research Center of the Law Library of Congress:

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.

The purport of the 1933 Nazi law was obvious. It was part of an overall campaign of oppressive laws and other actions designed to drive all Jews out of Germany. This disturbing historical parallel raises legitimate concerns as to the motivations underlying the Flemish law.

Ironically, current German law provides for a religious exception to the stunning-prior-to-slaughter requirement. Several other European nations (Cyprus, France, Luxembourg and Spain) have similar religious exceptions. Some countries require post-cut stunning (Austria, Estonia, Greece and Latvia) which apparently would accommodate the religious requirements. The two Belgian regions, however, join the group of countries that do not provide for exceptions (Sweden, Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Slovenia).

In the U.S., the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act covers the slaughtering of food animals in establishments inspected by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). This law requires that slaughtering methods be “humane,” but it also expressly finds “to be humane” “slaughtering in accordance with the ritual requirements of the Jewish faith” or in accordance with the requirements of other faiths utilizing similar methods. 7 U.S.C. § 1902(b). Thus, U.S. law specifically declares “humane” the very methods that are now banned in Flanders.

The Flemish and Walloon measures have been challenged in the Belgian courts.