Santeria priest in Euless can resume goat sacrifices
The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has overturned a district court’s ruling, paving the way for a Santeria priest in Euless to resume goat sacrifices as part of religious ceremonies.The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty comments on the case (March 27, 2009)
City officials had attempted to ban the sacrifices, an action that Jose Merced, a Santeria priest and Puerto Rico native, challenged in federal court as a restriction on his constitutional right to free exercise of religion.
Merced’s lawyer, Eric Rassbach, said it was a great day for religious freedom in Texas. But Euless’ attorney, William “Mick” McKamie, said he plans to file a motion for a rehearing.
City officials have said animal sacrifices jeopardize public health and violate Euless’ slaughterhouse and animal-cruelty ordinances.
“It’s repulsive, and it has no business in an urban environment,” McKamie said after the April hearing in New Orleans.
In its ruling, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans said the Euless ordinance placed a substantial burden on Merced’s “free exercise of religion without advancing a compelling governmental interest using the least restrictive means.”
In court papers, Rassbach described Santeria 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.
Merced, who is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, had not been able to practice his religion since the city of Euless, based on two anonymous phone calls, had barred him from sacrificing animals in his home, an integral part of Santeria, three years ago.
Merced, a Puerto Rico native and a practitioner of Santeria since childhood, had 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. Merced’s sacrifices were performed in a humane manner, utilizing a method that is approved as humane by federal statute. Most of the animal meat was consumed in a ceremonial dinner and the leftovers were disposed of neatly.
Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on the traditional beliefs of Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, who brought it to the New World as slaves. In Cuba, it merged with some Christian beliefs and evolved into modern day Santeria, where its gods, or orishas, are reached through animal sacrifices. Santeria priests are trained to perform humane ritual sacrifice and the animals are consumed in a communal meal after the ceremony. Douglas Laycock, University of Michigan law professor and preeminent religious liberty scholar, represented Lukumi Babalu Aye in 1993, and is co-counsel to the Becket Fund in Merced’s appeal.