Santeria priest accuses city of tramping on his constitutional right to religious exercise
NEW ORLEANS — A Santeria priest who sued a Texas city for denying him permission to sacrifice a goat as part of a religious ceremony asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to let him resume the ritual in his home.
Jose Merced, 46, accused the city of Euless, Texas, of trampling on his constitutional right to religious exercise, but U.S. District Judge John McBryde sided with the Fort Worth suburb last year and dismissed the Puerto Rico native’s claims.
Merced asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn McBryde’s ruling. A three-judge panel that heard arguments Wednesday did not immediately rule.
Euless man’s fight for animal sacrifice hits federal appeals court
The city says animal sacrifices jeopardize public health and violate its slaughterhouse and animal cruelty ordinances.
Merced and 10 church members were preparing for an animal sacrifice in May 2006 when police went to his home to investigate a neighbor’s tip. They told Merced he could not proceed with the sacrifice.
The city refused to issue a permit for Merced to conduct future ceremonies, citing rules against being cruel to animals, keeping livestock and disposing of animal waste.
In 2007, the city offered Merced a compromise to help settle the lawsuit: He could sacrifice chickens, which the city ordinance allows, but not goats as he wanted. The city would continue to enforce its animal cruelty ordinance and its ban on killing livestock.
Merced declined the deal.
Ever since, Merced said, he hasn’t been able to properly practice his religion for fear of being arrested.
He refuses to leave Euless, he said.
“I don’t think that’s up to a city,” Merced said. “This is a land of religious freedom.”
Judge Rhesa Barksdale asked city attorney Bradford Bullock how Merced’s animal sacrifices differ from a hunter bringing home a deer and butchering it.
“What’s different is that this man wants to keep live animals in his home, a large number of live animals,” Bullock said.
Merced’s lawyer, Eric Rassbach, said Merced sacrificed animals at his Euless home for 16 years without incident and is willing to “quadruple bag” the remains and dispose of them in a way that doesn’t jeopardize public health.
Rassbach, a staff member of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, described Santeria in court papers as an Afro-Cuban religion with a complex ritual for ordaining priests, including the sacrifice of up to nine four-legged animals, such as lambs or goats, up to 20 chickens or other fowl and a turtle.
Goat sacrifice on trial in TX: Arguments in Fifth Circuit address religious liberty issues
Today (April 1, 2009) the Fifth Circuit heard arguments in the Santeria case Merced v. City of Euless, Texas. Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director of The Becket Fund, argued on behalf of Jose Merced, a practitioner of Santeria who sued Euless after being denied permission to sacrifice a goat as part of a religious ceremony at his home.
“Goat sacrifice is never going to be popular in Texas, but what is good for the goose has to be good for the goat,” said Rassbach. “If Euless permits animal killing for hunting, fishing, meat production, pest control and euthanasia, it cannot ban it for religious reasons.”
Merced sued in Fort Worth federal district court, arguing that Euless’s selective enforcement of its laws violated his religious freedom rights under the First Amendment and Texas state law. He also relied on a 1993 Supreme Court case, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.
“In 1993 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found unconstitutional a city ban on killing ‘an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption.’ We are pretty sure the Constitution still applies in Texas,” added Rassbach.
• Fact Sheet: Merced v. City of Euless, TX, includes briefs filed in the case.