The priest, Jose Merced, sued the city in December after police and permit officials told him he couldn’t kill goats for an initiation ceremony.
At the center of the lawsuit is a 2000 federal land-use law, which says that local governments must show a compelling public interest before enforcing an ordinance that could limit a religious practice.
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Euless argues in court records that the act is unconstitutional because it amounts to Congress intruding on a state’s right to regulate the health and welfare of its residents.
“Slaughtering of any animal in the city of Euless is illegal for anyone, just like it has been for decades,” said the city’s attorney, William McKamie.
“If the local government officers, before they enforce a general ordinance, were forced to question people’s beliefs and practices, that would be entanglement in religion, which is clearly unconstitutional,” he said.
The U.S. is steeped in the idea that governments can’t prohibit the practice of a religion. But does that mean someone can hold a religious ceremony anywhere, anytime?
Where to draw the line has been the subject of a tug of war in the last two decades between the U.S. Supreme Court and Congress. And Mr. Merced and Euless have stepped right in the middle of it.
Followers of the African-Caribbean religion believe that the energy contained in blood from an animal sacrifice opens a channel of direct communication with the spirits, known as orishas.
Mr. Merced’s lawsuit contends that the city violated the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which says that municipalities must show a compelling interest before implementing a land-use regulation, such as a zoning law, that hinders religious practices.
But Mr. McKamie said the ban of animal slaughter is a health and safety law, not a land-use law, and applies to the entire city. If Euless had to make an exception for sacrifice, that would force the city to endorse Santeria, because it would be favoring a religious group over a secular one, he said.
Mr. McKamie helped overturn the predecessor to the religious land-use law in a case involving Boerne, Texas. And he defended Euless against a 2003 lawsuit by Grace Community Church, which was denied a permit to move into a vacant supermarket. That case was settled with the city paying more than $200,000. The church moved to Southlake.
Courts vs. Congress
Until 1990, courts applied a broad test when determining if a law violated the free exercise of religion: Did the law substantially burden a religious practice? And if so, was it justified by a compelling government interest?
But that changed in a Supreme Court case involving members of an American Indian church who were denied unemployment benefits after losing their jobs for using peyote in a sacrament. The court ruled that neutral laws that applied to everyone didn’t constitute religious discrimination.
Congress fought back in 1993, passing the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which reinstated the old standard and said that if a municipality proves a compelling interest, the law must be carried out in the least restrictive way possible.
But in 1997, the high court struck down the law in a case involving a mission-style church that wanted to expand in a historic district in the Hill Country city of Boerne. The justices held that the religious freedom act was unconstitutional because it allowed Congress to intrude on states’ rights to regulate the welfare of its residents.
Congress came back in 2000 with the religious land-use law, known by its acronym, RLUIPA. The act restores the old compelling interest test in specific cases, such as zoning proposals. The Supreme Court has not heard a case on land-use matters, but lower courts have.
“The challenges have been consistently rejected, and the reason they have been rejected is that Congress respected the rules that the Supreme Court set out for it,” said Anthony Picarello, vice president of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which runs the Web site www.rluipa.com.
But Mr. McKamie disagreed, saying that courts have thrown out several cases where a law didn’t create a “substantial burden” on a religious practice.
“Congress still didn’t get it right when they adopted RLUIPA when they attempted to overrule the Supreme Court,” he said. If it comes before the court, “I think it’s going to be held unconstitutional on all or at least some of the grounds.”
The Euless dispute escalated in May when an unidentified person called police and complained that Mr. Merced and other Santeria followers were going to sacrifice several goats.
An animal control officer told him that it was “against city ordinance to slaughter animals but he was unsure if it would be ok if it was done for religious purposes,” the report said.
Mr. Merced and a Santeria priest from Puerto Rico met with Euless planning and development officials in June. Mr. Merced said he asked for a permit to perform animal sacrifices, and the officials told him “absolutely not.”
Mr. McKamie said no one from the city specifically discussed animal sacrifice with them, only that there’s no permit for animal slaughter in Euless.
“Religious sacrifice never has ever arisen from the city’s standpoint,” he said.
Under the ordinance, Mr. Merced would be allowed to kill chickens so long as they are for food, Mr. McKamie said.
After being sacrificed, the chickens and goats used in the ritual are cleaned, cooked in a stew and eaten during a feast. But the law prohibits the killing of goats for any reason.
Since the lawsuit was filed, national religious freedom and Latino advocacy groups have sent letters to Euless officials, pointing to a 1993 Supreme Court case that struck a Florida city’s ban on animal sacrifice, saying that the law targeted Santeria followers.
“It’s absolutely disappointing that they’re spending taxpayers’ money to fight a lawsuit that was settled 10 years ago,” said K.B. Forbes, executive director of one of the groups, Consejo de Latinos Unidos.
The group, based in Washington, D.C., has asked Euless to allow the Santeria sacrifices and offered to hold religious tolerance training.
“Euless has a broad religious base there,” Mr. McKamie said. “It’s been a very tolerant city forever. It’s just surprising that someone would claim otherwise.”
But Mr. Merced disagreed.
“I’ve had four ceremonies, and they always come down and tell me I can’t do it. That’s not being tolerant,” he said.