In June, the Supreme Court staunchly defended the free exercise of religion by the politically unpopular.
Writing for the majority in Church of the Lukumi Bablu Aye vs. City of Hialeah, Justice Anthony Kennedy declared unconstitutional a Florida city's ordinances manifestly targeted at ritual animal sacrifices practiced by adherents of the Santeria religion.
The ruling substantiates that those in and out of Congress who have assailed the court's 1990 ruling in Employment Division vs. Smith as giving license to religious persecution were wrong, and it substantially undercuts the justification for the mischievous Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
A central feature of the Santeria faith is animal sacrifice as a form of devotion, no oddity within the universe of religious practices. References to animal sacrifice are numerous in the Old Testament, and the practice was an important part of Judaism before destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. Muslims commemorate Abraham's sacrifice of a ram in lieu of his son in annual sacrifices.
The Santeria religion has been largely imported by Cuban exiles fleeing Fidel Castro, and about 50,000 members live in South Florida. In April 1987, a Santeria church announced plans to establish a house of worship in Hialeah, which provoked a swift community response. The City Council hastily passed ordinances disingenuously designed to prohibit the Santeria practice of animal sacrifice.
The council 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," and it prohibited ownership or possession of an animal for slaughter or sacrifice whether or not consumption was intended. Animal slaughter for food purposes by licensed establishments in zoned areas was permitted, however, and an exemption from the zoning restriction was created for small-scale slaughtering and processing of hogs or cattle.
The language of the ordinances suggested a religiously neutral and constitutionally legitimate objective: preventing unnecessary, cruel or insalubrious animal killings. But the history and application of the ordinances proved the contrary
A City Council resolution cited citizen concern over proposed religious practices as the motivation for the ordinances. Cheers echoed at a public hearing when a council member said that in prerevolution Cuba "people were put in jail for practicing the [Santeria] religion." Another council member avowed that he was "totally against the sacrificing of animals," but exempted Kosher slaughter because of its "real purpose." He explained that the "Bible says we are allowed to sacrifice an animal for consumption, but for any other purposes, I don't believe the Bible allows that. …