Dec 10, 4:53 PM EST

Court overturns ban on ritual slaughter of animals, a win for Jews, Muslims and Polish farmers

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WARSAW, Poland (AP) -- Poland's constitutional court on Wednesday overturned a ban on the ritual slaughter of animals which had affected the Jewish and Muslim communities.

The Constitutional Tribunal ruled that the protection of animals could not take precedence over the guarantees of religious freedom. Though the judges did not rule unanimously, it is nonetheless a victory for Poland's small Jewish and Muslim communities and for the agricultural industry, which in the past profited from the production of meat for export to Jewish and Muslim communities.

Ritual slaughter, which involves the killing of livestock without stunning them first to reduce their pain, has been illegal since Jan. 1, 2013, due to a ban that the same court imposed after a campaign by animal rights activists.

Wednesday's ruling came in reaction to a complaint lodged by Poland's Jewish community, which argued that the ban violated guarantees of religious freedom enshrined in Poland's constitution and the European Convention of Human Rights.

Poland's top Muslim leader, Tomasz Miskiewicz, and Jewish officials in and out of Poland welcomed the decision.

"Religious freedom for Jewish communities in Europe has been under threat from those who would ban ritual slaughter and male circumcision, two fundamental Jewish rites," said Abraham Foxman with the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League. "Poland's highest court and the Polish Jewish community struck an important victory for religious freedom, not only for the Jews of Poland but also for other European Jewish communities."

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, said the decision "marks a major victory for the Polish Jewish community," which he said was also hurt by a failure of Poland's parliament last year to adopt a law to keep kosher and halal slaughter legal.

"This also sends a clear signal: Jews, Jewish life and Jewish traditions are welcome in Poland," Lauder said in a statement.

Until 2013, Polish farmers were doing a good business, making about 500 million euros ($620 million) per year exporting kosher and halal meat to Israel and Muslim countries such as Egypt and Iran. But the business practically ground out after ritual slaughter was banned.

In both religions the slaughter method involves a swift cut to the throat of a conscious animal and death by bleeding. Animal rights activists say it causes unnecessary suffering. But religious leaders insist efforts are taken to minimize suffering and that the animals are killed so fast they do not suffer for long.

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