Sacramento, Calif., Jul 10, 2014 / 04:07 am (CNA).- Proposed California food safety rules for butchering animals have raised concerns among the state’s Muslims, who say the rules would prevent them from practicing their religious beliefs.
“Religious freedom is an important issue for all Americans. It is at the core of the freedoms our country was founded on and a value we pride ourselves on,” Zahra Billoo, executive director of the Council of Islamic Relations’ San Francisco Bay Area Office, told CNA July 8.
The celebration of Eid al Adha, a Muslim holiday which includes a ritual sacrifice of an animal, the meat of which is shared among family, friends, and the poor. Food safety proposals in California may threaten the ability of local Muslims to carry out the sacrifice in accord with their beliefs.
Billoo explained that Muslims sacrifice an animal during Eid al Adha “as a means of paying respect for and honoring the story of Prophet Abraham and his sacrifice.”
Unlike Jews and Christians, who believe Abraham was told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac but then substituted a ram after proving his faith, Muslims hold that Abraham was commanded to sacrifice his other son, Ishmael.
California Muslims’ commemoration of the event could be endangered by the California Department of Food and Agriculture’s proposed regulation on custom slaughterhouses.
The rule would require the slaughterhouses to stun animals before a non-employee can come in and cut the animal’s throat, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
Muslims sometimes use special slaughterhouses to make their sacrifice for Eid al Adha. To mark the occasion, a conscious animal is slaughtered by making a single cut across its neck with a long, sharp blade while saying a short prayer.
“The proposed rule would undermine the ability of Muslims to engage in the slaughter, specifically by requiring that the animal be stunned in advance,” Billoo said.
Stunning an animal would undermine the halal requirements that many Muslims follow, she noted.
Billoo said that some Muslims have a “sincerely held religious belief that they must personally slaughter their meat.”
“The proposed rules would inhibit the ability to engage in these practices.”
Billoo said regulators are now reviewing submitted comments on the proposed new rule. The agency could disregard the new rules, adopt them as proposed, or make a new proposal and again seek public comment.
Brice Hamack, an attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, California, said in a June 30 letter to the California Department of Food and Agriculture that the regulation, as written, would “prohibit many American Muslims residing in California from practicing their religious beliefs,” adding that the regulation is inconsistent with current California legal codes regarding the religious slaughter of animals.
Eric Rassbach, deputy general counsel at the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, encouraged non-Muslims to “stand up for the right of Muslims to engage in this.”
“That’s something that everyone should stand up for, even if they don’t personally stand to benefit,” he remarked to CNA.
Rassbach’s organization has been defending Catholic and other Christian organizations, on the basis of religious liberty, against federal requirements to provide employees with health insurance coverage for sterilization and contraception.
He said that respecting religious freedom is “part of everyone being able to live together.”
While a religious practice may not make sense to somebody else, he said, “we can at least agree that in order for our fellow citizens to be able to follow their religion, we should try to accommodate that and make space for that.”
“That’s what California should do,” he added.
Rassbach said there have been efforts in some European countries to ban halal or kosher slaughter. He attributed the rarity of these efforts in the U.S. to the fact that the practices are recognized as humane under U.S. law.
He suggested that California regulators may not have considered the religious issue and could adjust the law. In his view, the regulators have a duty under the California and U.S. constitutions to respond to religious concerns and advance a government interest “without impinging on this religious activity.” He said this duty is especially clear given that California statutes already recognize this kind of slaughter.
“Religious freedom is not going to be something that’s only going to be provided to a certain group,” Rassbach said. “In our system, we treat different religious groups equally.”
“It would be very unfortunate that if somebody doesn’t agree with a particular religious practice it could be banned. Almost everybody who is religious has some practice that other people don’t agree with.”