Kirklees Council has gone on the offensive over its policy of serving non-stunned halal meat in its schools.
Council Leader Shabir Pandor accused those campaigning for the policy to be reversed of using animal welfare as tool to stir up racial hatred.
He said they were taking advantage of communities and playing with fears on an issue that ran deep.
And in rejecting calls to end the policy he said: “This debate has been generated deliberately on the back of creating divisions, hatred and putting communities against one another.
“We cannot afford this council chamber to be fooled into a situation where we create a scenario that we cannot control.”
In a strong rebuke to anti-halal campaigners he said their moral outrage was “politically motivated”.
He added: “I cannot commit myself or my cabinet to review this policy.
"The answer has to be no.”
The announcement has disappointed the National Secular Society, which raised the issue of non-stunned meat in school last year. It said the council was “normalising cruelty to animals”.
Clr Pandor’s comments followed deputations both in support of serving non-stunned halal meat, and against.
The debate was prompted after more than 7,000 people signed an online petition calling for all meat served in the borough’s schools to be stunned before slaughter.
Across Kirklees 43 schools receive halal meat via the authority’s catering service. Seventeen school with predominantly Muslim children do not offer a non-halal meat alternative.
Clr Pandor added: “Conversely the same applies where there are no Muslim children, so there is no option other than a single menu, which is non-halal meat. How do you draw the line there?”
Petition organiser Aleks Lukic said those signing the petition were “dismayed” that the council had chosen to pursue a policy “that sponsors and normalises non-stun slaughter” by serving such meat in local schools.
He argued that scrapping the policy would mean “a significant improvement” for the welfare of animals slaughtered for school meals in Kirklees.
“It would also ensure that the long-standing religious exemption in British law” – which allows animals to be legally slaughtered without stunning for consumption by followers of Islam and Judaism – “is no longer undermined in our borough.”
Reacting to the council’s admission that 17 schools in Kirklees do not provide a non-halal meat alternative he said children of non-Muslim families had been led into consuming products of non-stun slaughter “without their knowledge”.
“The council has consistently failed to provide clear information to families on the type of meat being served [and] has tried to pass the blame onto the schools.
“But it is the council that runs the catering service, and it is the council that provides the menus for families to consider. It is the council that is ultimately accountable.”
Conservative Group leader Clr David Hall (Liversedge and Gomersal) said a comprehensive review of food in all the borough’s schools was overdue.
And he pointed out that several nations, including Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland have banned religious ritual slaughter on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion”
“My group does not seek to gain any political capital out of this issue and I deplore those who are trying to turn one community against another.
“That’s not what this debate is about.”
Clr Andrew Cooper (Green, Newsome) questioned whether those behind the petition, which was being presented as an issue of choice, were genuine animal rights activists.
“The issue before us is about one aspect of animal welfare in our food system among many.
“If the same people bringing this petition start to champion other choices we have to make in the food we eat rather than those affecting other communities, then I may really believe they have a genuine concern for animal welfare rather than simply being people only interested in animal welfare as it relates to a particular community.”
National Secular Society chief executive Stephen Evans said: “It’s bitterly disappointing to see councillors in Kirklees, particularly the council’s leader, trying to silence debate over the supply of non-stun meat to schools in this way.
“While anyone who uses this issue to stir up anti-Muslim prejudice should be condemned, the scientific consensus is clear that stunning animals before they are slaughtered is more humane than not doing so.
“By supplying non-stun halal to dozens of schools Kirklees Council is normalising cruelty to animals. And its response to criticism of this appears to be to deflect attention by making blanket accusations against its critics.
“These mendacious silencing tactics must be called out for what they are.
“These councillors are dismissing the concerns of Kirklees residents who do not wish their council to supply this meat to children, including Muslims who reject the hardline interpretations of Islam that the council has effectively endorsed.
“Indeed the council’s policy flies in the face of the fact that the majority of halal meat consumed by Muslims in the UK is from animals stunned prior to slaughter.
“Those who claim to be standing up for Muslims are in fact helping to stir social resentment and entrench reactionary views both among Muslims and against them.”