In what is being called a landmark religious freedom case, the U.S. Supreme Court must now decide whether the city of Hialeah, Fla. is justified in banning the sacrifice of animals or if the city’s law violates a church’s right to practice its religion.
Douglas Laycock, attorney for the plaintiff in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo vs. the City of Hialeah, argued before the court Wednesday that the city is “openly discriminating against minority religions, principally restricting the practices of this religion.”
Animal sacrifice to various spirits is the central practice of Santeria, a religion that has its roots in Africa and arrived in the United States via the Caribbean.
Jewish organizations and other religious groups are backing the Santeria church and are watching the case closely. They believe the court’s decision in it could impact the way constitutionally protected religious liberty is defined in America.
Samuel Rabinove, legal director for the American Jewish Committee, said a ruling in favor of Hialeah would be “perilous for Jews” and further restrict freedom of religious expression.
“States could pass laws regulating kosher slaughter and prohibiting circumcision except when performed by a licensed physician,” Rabinove said. “I’m not saying this will happen, but we would have no protection.”
The counsel for the defense maintains that sacrificing and then disposing of the animals cause health hazards, citing the discovery of a dead goat on Miami Beach.
“There are goat heads and blood being preserved where people live, creating vectors for disease,” said Richard Garrett, who argued the case for Hialeah. Garrett added that Santeria practices Satanism, witchcraft and voodoo.
But attorney Marc Stern, co-director of American Jewish Congress Commission on Law and Social Action, said, “The impression is unavoidable that the ordinances were passed to do away with a particular religion.”
AJCongress joined with a broad religious coalition to file a friend-of-the- court brief in favor of the unpopular church.
The high court decision will likely be based on the precedent set by a 1990 Supreme Court ruling, in Smith vs. Oregon. In this case, the court ruled that a ban on the drug peyote did not infringe on the rights of Native Americans, who use the hallucinogen in religious rituals.
While Jewish groups hope the court will use this opportunity to limit the scope of the Smith ruling, the justices may decide the case on narrower grounds, if they find the Hialeah ordinances were intended to target the Santeria church specifically.
“There are no ordinances interfering with the routine killing of animals in Hialeah every day,” Laycock pointed out, citing the euthanasia of unwanted pets and the fact that hunting is a legal sport in Dade County.
In questioning city attorney Garrett, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor asked about Hialeah laws banning the torture of animals.
“So, does the law allow people to trap mice and rats? Can a person boil a live lobster and eat it in Hialeah?” she asked.
The court is expected to hand down a decision after the first of the year.