The Supreme Court ruled today that a Florida city’s ban on ritual animal sacrifice violated the religious freedom of the followers of an Afro-Cuban religion in which the sacrifice of animals plays a central role.
All nine Justices agreed that the prohibition, enacted in 1987 by the City of Hialeah, violated the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. “The principle that government may not enact laws that suppress religious belief or practice is so well understood that few violations are recorded in our opinions,” Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote for the Court.
But the Justices were divided in their approach to the case, continuing a three-year-old debate within the Court on how to analyze laws that make religious observances burdensome or impossible.
Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion found the series of ordinances enacted by the Hialeah City Council to be constitutionally flawed because their goal was to suppress the Santeria religion. The council passed the ordinances in 1987, shortly after a group of Santeria adherents, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, announced plans to build a church and community center where religious rites including animal sacrifice would take place.
“The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship service was the object of the ordinances,” Justice Kennedy said. Singling Out a Religion
He said it did not matter that the ordinances did not announce their true intention. Noting that there was no ban on killing animals for other reasons — for food, including kosher ritual slaughter, or for recreation, as in hunting and fishing — Justice Kennedy said, “Careful drafting ensured that although Santeria sacrifice is prohibited, killings that are no more necessary or humane in almost all other circumstances are unpunished.”
Justice John Paul Stevens joined Justice Kennedy’s opinion in full. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist joined it in substantial respects, as did Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Byron R. White.
Three other Justices — Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O’Connor and David H. Souter — departed from Justice Kennedy’s analysis and offered a broader view of the scope of the guarantee of the free exercise of religion.
In a separate opinion, Justice Blackmun and Justice O’Connor said the Constitution protected religion not only from laws that deliberately place special burdens on religious practice but also from general laws that place burdens on religion as an incidental effect.
These two Justices were both dissenters from a 1990 decision, Employment Division v. Smith, in which the Court refused to exempt members of an American Indian religion that uses peyote in its central ritual from a state law making criminal any use of peyote and other hallucinogenic drugs.
In that decision, written by Justice Scalia, the Court announced the principle to which Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion adhered today: laws that happen to make a religious practice difficult or even impossible are constitutional as long as they are “neutral” and of “general applicability.”
In their separate opinion today, Justices Blackmun and O’Connor said they still regarded the 1990 decision as incorrect. “The First Amendment’s protection of religion extends beyond those rare occasions on which the government explicitly targets religion or a particular religion for disfavored treatment,” they said.
Justice Souter, who was not on the Court when it ruled in the peyote case, wrote a 20-page separate opinion criticizing that decision today and calling on his colleagues to reconsider it in the next available case.
The Court’s ruling in the peyote case provoked an uproar among many religious and civil liberties groups, and a bill to overturn it is advancing in Congress. The bill, named the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, was passed by the House of Representatives on May 11 and has not yet come to a vote in the Senate.
The split opinions today answered the question of why the Court had taken so long to decide the Hialeah case. The case, argued on Nov. 4 of last year, was the oldest undecided case on the Court’s calendar. A Religious Hybrid
Santeria (pronounced sahnt-ah-REE-ya) is practiced today by some 70,000 Cubans living in South Florida, and experts put the number nationwide at many thousands, with concentrations in New York, Chicago and other cities with large Caribbean Hispanic populations. It is a blend of religions, mixing the traditional Yoruba religion, brought to Cuba by Africans who came there as slaves, with the Roman Catholic faith they found there.
In the process, the identities of Yoruban gods became fused with the identities of Catholic saints; Santeria means “the way of the saints.” Adherents participate in Catholic sacraments, but they also kill animals, including chickens, pigeons, goats, sheep and turtles, as religious sacrifices to appeal to their deities.
Usually, the animals are eaten as part of the ritual, but in some rituals the carcasses are discarded. The city defended its ban on sacrifices in part as a public health measure, but Justice Kennedy said today that Hialeah “could have imposed a general regulation on the disposal of organic garbage” if that was its actual concern.
The principal ordinance defined sacrifice as “to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption.” The Santeria church’s constitutional challenge to the ordinance was rejected by both the Federal District Court in Miami and the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.
Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Texas who represented the church in its Supreme Court appeal, said today that the decision, while a victory for his clients, “only picks up the most obvious cases of suppression” and could permit “more clever city councils” to draft laws on other subjects that would be harmful to religious practice while staying within the boundaries the Court has established.
But Ernesto Pichardo, the founder of the Hialeah church, reacted jubilantly. “The Court’s decision is of profound significance,” he said today at a news conference at his home in Dade County. “Animal sacrifice is an integral part of our faith. It is like our holy meal. The decision means that our people will no longer feel they are outlaws because of the way they worship God.”
It is unclear how the decision will affect the practice of Santeria in the New York area. Unlike the Hialeah ordinance, the New York state and city laws governing cruelty to animals and the keeping of livestock do not mention religion or ritual, said Herman Cohen, the chief law enforcement officer with the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. But he added that the law barring the torture of animals might be called into question.
“Until today, taking an animal into a living room, cutting its throat and saying a prayer was prohibited,” Mr. Cohen said. “I don’t know if that’s true anymore.”
Briefs in support of the Santeria church were filed by several mainstream religious groups, including the American Jewish Congress and the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs.