A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

Does Religion Trump Animal Protection?

Denmark has been much in the news over the killing of Marius the giraffe in a Danish zoo. But not much has been said about the other big animal-related story out of Denmark: the banning of kosher/halal slaughter.

European humane regulations require that animals be stunned before they’re slaughtered – except when religious laws or traditions require otherwise.

Needless to say, animal protection organizations oppose kosher/halal slaughter as being an antiquated and inhumane religious tradition. Last week the Danish government agreed, and it brought an end to the religious exemption.

“Animal rights come before religion,” Danish Agriculture and Food Minister Dan Jorgensen said.

Religious Jews and Muslims saw it as the thin end of a wedge that could lead to bans on other cruel religious practices.

The new law is largely symbolic since most kosher/halal meat in Denmark is imported from other countries. But religious Jews and Muslims, in Denmark and all over the world, saw it as the thin end of a wedge that could lead to bans on other cruel and outmoded religious practices.

So Jewish groups are crying anti-Semitism, and Saudi Arabia and other Gulf nations are threatening to impose economic sanctions on Denmark. President of the European Jewish Congress Dr. Moshe Kantor called the ruling an “attack on basic Jewish religious practice.” And Danish Halal, a Muslim group, called it “a clear interference in religious freedom limiting the rights of Muslims and Jews to practice their religion in Denmark.” 

Kosher and halal slaughter involve cutting the throat of an animal to sever the jugular vein and carotid artery while the animal is fully conscious, thus allowing as much blood as possible to drain. The practice derives from Middle Eastern religions that predated Judaism and Islam, when people believed they could placate deities by offering them blood. The Hebrew Bible, for example, emphasizes that the blood of the animal is sacred to the deity. (e.g. “For the life of the flesh is the blood. This blood I myself have given you to perform the rite of atonement.” Lev. 17.)

Indeed, almost all religions with roots in antiquity have practiced human and animal blood sacrifice at one time or other as a way of appeasing their gods.

It derives from the belief that you can placate deities by offering them blood.But should any of these ancient religious practices still be protected in a modern society? Shouldn’t we, instead, be protecting animals from practices like these? When and why, if ever, should religious tradition (aka “freedom of religion”) be allowed to trump animal protection?

In the United States, in fact, religion almost always wins. In 1993, for example, the Supreme Court ruled that in banning animal sacrifice, the city of Hialeah, Florida, had violated the religious freedom of followers of Santeria.

Santeria, which came to America via the slave trade, derives from African religions that share some of the same African and Middle Eastern roots as Judaism and Islam. It also shares some of the same rituals, including how the animals in a blood sacrifice should be killed. 

In Santeria, animal sacrifice still plays a central role. The idea is that the blood contains “aché” or life force, and that the aché of an animal can be channeled to someone who needs healing. It’s reminiscent of what you find in the Bible, except that in Santeria the life force doesn’t belong exclusively to the deity, but can be used by a priest for the benefit of the community. 

Shouldn’t we be protecting animals FROM outdated and cruel religious practices?Concerned, presumably, with the specter of a slippery slope that could, for example, lead to questions about kosher and halal killing, all nine Supreme Court justices agreed that the city of Hialeah had violated the Constitution’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. (They disagreed on the exact nature of the violation, but each of them found a legal reason to give a thumbs-up to animal sacrifice.)

In 2009 a federal appeals court ruled similarly after the city of Euless in Texas tried to stop a Santeria leader from practicing animal sacrifice in the name of religion. The city argued that what Jose Merced was doing in his house was jeopardizing public health. Merced replied that the ban was preventing him from initiating any new priests. The court agreed with him.

“It’s a great day for religious freedom in Texas,” Eric Rassbach, Merced’s lawyer, said in response to the three-judge panel’s ruling.

(Many Texas Christian fundamentalists who consider Santeria to be devil-worship were left wondering what they had unleashed by having routinely invoked the First Amendment themselves in order to justify their own behaviors and practices.)

So, should religion trump animal protection?

For the most part, as United States law and culture would have it, yes. (Can anyone imagine the United States Congress defying religious lobbies by banning such cruelties as the kosher slaughter of animals?)

But for those of us who see any and all of these arcane, outdated rituals and “traditions” as nothing more than legalized cruelty and superstition, it’s really quite simple: Animal protection should trump any and all religious practices – and other cultural and traditional behaviors, too.

The blood of our fellow animals belongs to them – not to us or to our deities or to anything or anyone else.