LUXEMBOURG, Luxembourg. In order to promote animal welfare in the context of ritual slaughter, member states may prescribe a stunning procedure that is reversible and not likely to cause the death of the animal.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) came to this decision in its ruling on a decree by the Belgian region of Flanders that prohibits slaughter without stunning. The Luxembourg judges also ruled that this regulation did not violate the freedom of religion enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
Several Jewish and Muslim associations had filed a lawsuit against the Flemish law and demanded that it be declared null and void in whole or in part. The reason given for the lawsuit was that it deprived believers of the opportunity to obtain meat from animals that had been slaughtered in accordance with their religious commandments. It therefore prevented believers from practicing their religion. Against this background, the Belgian Constitutional Court had asked the ECJ for a preliminary ruling.
In examining the proportionality of the restriction, the ECJ found that the requirements of the Flemish decree did indeed make it possible to ensure "an appropriate balance between the importance attached to animal welfare and the freedom of Jewish and Muslim believers to profess their religion". Thus, according to the judges, the obligation of reversible stunning is suitable to achieve the objective of promoting the welfare of animals.
Furthermore, the judgment emphasizes that the Union legislator has granted each Member State a "wide margin of appreciation" in the context of reconciling the protection of animal welfare in the killing of animals and the preservation of the freedom to profess one's religion. The ECJ judges also emphasize that there is a scientific consensus that prior stunning is the best means to reduce the suffering of the animal at the time of its killing.
They further state that with its decree, the Flemish legislature places itself in an "evolving social and normative context" characterized by an increasing awareness of animal welfare issues. Moreover, the decree neither prohibits nor hinders the import of products from ritually slaughtered animals from another member state or a third country.
With their decision, the judges contradicted the opinion of ECJ Advocate General Gerard Hogan. In his legal opinion presented in September, Hogan had come to the conclusion that the decree of the Flemish Region violated the freedom of religion enshrined in the European Charter of Fundamental Rights.