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We are here today to talk about an issue that has significant ramifications for the welfare of animals and the lives of members of religious minority groups. As we discuss legislation that seeks to ban animal slaughter without stunning, we should acknowledge that both sides have valid reasons for their views. The desire to protect animals from suffering, hurt, and pain, and to further animal health and welfare, is a laudable goal. I, for example, am primarily a vegetarian and believe that animals should not unnecessarily suffer.

But it is crucial that we recognize when states propose or pass legislation to ban slaughter without stunning, with no exemption for religious reasons, they are undermining a human right enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, national constitutions, and human rights instruments and domestic laws. That right, the right to freedom of religion or belief, includes the ability of every person to freely practice their faith.

While laws drafted to ensure the humane treatment of animals are commendable, legislators must carefully examine whether such laws have unintended consequences. Requiring animals to be stunned prior to slaughter without religious exemptions may force some individuals to abandon religious or cultural practices, preventing them from practicing a key tenet of their religion.

It is important to note that members of religious minority groups and government representatives from interested countries have been vocal about the serious harm this type of legislation could inflict. My own country, the United States, takes this issue very seriously and we have been clear that this type of legislation can interfere with the right of freedom of religion and belief.

I would also offer an example from right here in Belgium: In June, the Brussels Regional Parliament voted against a draft bill that would have banned animal slaughtering without stunning. The decision – which followed weeks of debate between animal rights proponents and members of the Jewish and Muslim communities in Belgium – highlights the importance of informed debate among all stakeholders about how such bans can limit religious freedom.

Not only do absolute bans interfere with the right to practice one’s religion, but they also send a message of exclusion to those who seek to follow religious or cultural dietary requirements. At a time when we are seeing rising antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and xenophobia across Europe, this type of legislation reinforces the perception that members of religious minority groups are unwelcome in some countries. What a distressing time to be a Jew or a Muslim. While Europe’s leaders are telling Jews and Muslims that they want them to thrive in Europe, some countries are simultaneously passing laws that threaten their very way of life.

We mustn’t forget there are also dark, historical precedents reflected in these laws, even if the contemporary intent is not the same. Laws limiting Jews from practicing their religion, including laws banning kosher slaughter, were enacted in Europe’s not-too-distant past for the purpose of making it difficult for Jews to live their lives. One of the first acts of the Nazi regime was to pass such a law.

There is an easy way to both promote animal welfare during slaughter and respect the rights of members of religious minority groups. By exempting ritual slaughter from these laws, countries can ensure animals are treated more humanely, while preserving the right to freedom of religion or belief. In some cases, we already see exemptions in these laws for things like hunting or fishing. Providing an exemption for something as fundamental as freedom of religion or belief should also be exempted in any such legislation.

It is also critical, when drafting this type of legislation, to work with all affected communities and ensure their concerns are understood so that laws are not passed that infringe on a community’s ability to practice their religion or culture. Likewise, those countries that currently have these laws in place should reach out to religious minority communities to determine how best to protect their members’ human rights and support their way of life.

I look forward to the conversation we are about to have on this issue and appreciate that so many of you travelled here today to participate in what, undoubtedly, is one of the most important issues of religious freedom facing the EU today.

U.S. Department of State

The Lessons of 1989: Freedom and Our Future