The Danish Prohibition on Ritual Slaughter – Just a Matter of Freedom of Religion vs Animal Welfare?

Stephanie Berry
Stephanie Berry

On 14th February, the Danish Ministry of Agriculture (Fødevareministeriet) amended the Regulations on the Slaughter of Animals (Bekendtgørelse om slagtning og aflivning af dyr) to remove the possibility of a religious exemption from the requirement that animals be stunned prior to slaughter (Chapter 4 §9). The Ministry of Agriculture justified the amendment on the grounds that it was necessary to protect the welfare of animals. Communities belonging to both the Jewish and Muslim faiths believe that the stunning of animals prior to slaughter precludes meat from being kosher and halal. Thus, representatives of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Denmark have argued that the amendment infringes their right to freedom of religion

Denmark is party to both the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which encompass a right to manifest religion ‘in worship, teaching, practice and observance’. Both the UN Human Rights Committee (General Comment No. 22 para 4) and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) (Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v France para 80) have recognised that the observance of dietary regulations constitutes a protected manifestation of religion. Notably, in 2010 the ECtHR found a violation of article 9 in Jakóbski v Poland where the State had failed to provide appropriate meals in prison for the Buddhist applicant (para 54).

However, the extent to which the right to manifest religion under article 9 ECHR encompasses a right to ritual slaughter is questionable. In the case of Cha’are Shalom Ve Tsedek v France, the ECtHR held that restrictions on licencing that prevented the halalultra-orthodox Jewish community from slaughtering animals in accordance with their religious convictions were permissible, provided that adherents were able to access such meat elsewhere (paras 80, 83). Accordingly, the ECtHR has interpreted article 9 ECHR to encompass the right to access religiously compliant food rather than to slaughter animals in accordance with religious requirements. In the Danish case, both Jewish and Muslim communities are able to access kosher and halal meat, albeit meat that has been slaughtered outside of Denmark. Therefore, it seems unlikely that the ECtHR would find a violation of article 9 ECHR, on the basis of the amended Danish Regulations on the Slaughter of Animals.

Although the prohibition of ritual slaughter without the prior stunning of animals does not necessarily amount to a violation of freedom of religion, an important question arises as to why the Danish Ministry of Agriculture decided to amend the law in the first place.  The note accompanying the amended Regulations observes that slaughter without prior stunning had not occurred in Denmark in the ten years preceding the amendment. Thus, religious slaughter had only been permissible if the animal had been stunned beforehand.  This compromise is acceptable to some but not all Muslim and Jewish communities, depending on their interpretation of the requirements of their faith.

While the amendment to the law does not change the previous situation, the Minister for Agriculture, Dan Jørgensen, justified the ban on the grounds that it was better ‘to be on the safe side’. However, as the required dispensation from the existing law had not been granted in the preceding ten years, it is unclear why this amendment was considered necessary.

kosherIn response to the development,  the Chair of the Jewish Community,  (Det Jødiske Samfund) Finn Schwarz, accused the Ministry of Agriculture of pandering to public opinion and victimising minority communities that are unable to defend themselves. Specifically, he expressed concern that this amendment signalled that there was an intention to completely prohibit religious slaughter in the longer term.

The debate surrounding halal slaughter and, more recently, kosher slaughter, has been ongoing in Denmark for the past decade. Concerns have consistently been raised regarding the marking of halal meat in supermarkets, the use of halal meat in hospital and school meals, in addition to the ethical issues surrounding halal slaughter- which seem, as noted in the Guardian, at odds with the treatment of animals during the mass production of meat in Denmark. Irrespective of the legitimacy of the restriction on the grounds of animal welfare, it seems incongruous that the Ministry of Agriculture chose to restrict ritual slaughter, when in reality this had not been problematic. Given the public debate surrounding halal meat in Denmark, it is unsurprising that the affected religious communities have perceived this move to be a political statement. Indeed, the lack of any evidence of the need to amend the law supports this view.

While the prohibition on halal meat may serve a legitimate purpose,  the recent amendment to the law must be observed in the broader context of the treatment of religious minorities in Denmark. Measures taken by politicians which specifically impact the Muslim and/or Jewish community and practices that are perceived to be undesirable by the majority do not take place in a vacuum.

International monitoring bodies, including the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities (AC-FCNM) and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination have voiced concern at intolerant attitudes to religious minorities in Denmark, in particular those expressed by politicians. Notably, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has heard a number of cases involving racial and religious hate speech by Danish politicians. In its Second Opinion on Denmark, the AC-FCNM expressed concern at ‘the introduction of an anti-immigrant agenda in the political arena’ and the associated ‘upsurge of intolerance particularly against Muslims and Arabs’ (para 77). Specifically, the AC-FCNM considered that ‘that politicians and political parties must live up fully to their responsibility for promoting tolerance while refraining from words or action likely to stoke up any form of racism, xenophobia or hatred’ (para 78).

The prohibition of stunning, prior to slaughter, has not altered the ability of religious communities in Denmark to slaughter animals in accordance with their beliefs. However, this development appears to be a tactical political move which appeals to the majority and further alienates minority communities in Denmark. By legitimising debates taking place within the majority, without the participation of the minority, this measure sends a clear message that these communities must conform, in order to be tolerated in Denmark. This has led to concern amongst these communities that their religious practices will be subject to further restriction in the future. Although the law does not change anything in relation to ritual slaughter, it does further legitimise the victimisation of communities that are already vulnerable to discrimination.

Stephanie E. Berry is a Lecturer in Public Law, University of Sussex

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