Happy Sunday!  This Sunday we’re finally tackling the Free Exercise Clause, and this case is a really fun place to start!

​The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye was a congregation of Santeria practitioners.  For those of us who have only heard of Santeria from that Sublime song, it’s a Caribbean faith, developed by enslaved Africans, which merges some aspects of the African Yoruba religion with Roman Catholicism.  In many places, including Cuba, it’s practiced as an underground or secret faith, but that secrecy is a response to persecution rather than a matter of doctrine.  For the purposes of this case, the most important thing to know about the faith is that animal sacrifice as well as the consumption of sacrificed animals plays an important role in the practice of Santeria.

When the people of Hialeah heard that a Santeria Church would be opening in their area, they were understandably perturbed.  City Council meetings were held in which the members of the Council lauded the ban of Santeria in their native Cuba and decried demon worship.[1]  The City Council knew that they couldn’t Constitutionally ban practice of Santeria within their City, but they believed that they could outlaw animal sacrifice.  Fairly, the Council argued that the City has an interest in banning inhumane treatment of animals, unsanitary disposal of carcasses and consumption of uninspected meat within City limits.  The City therefore passed a law banning ritual animal sacrifice within City limits.

The Santeria Church sued, claiming that this law unfairly targeted their religion and was therefore unconstitutional under the Free Practice Clause of the First Amendment.

The Court found in favor of the Church.  The Court found that while the City certainly did have an interest in preventing unsanitary conditions within their City, the right of the Santeria practitioners to practice their religion outweighed the City’s interests in this case.

The Court based their findings on two connected lines of reasoning.  The first was legislative intent.  The City Council had clearly been looking to ban the practice of Santeria rather than to rid their City of blights.  The Court made much of how carefully the law was written to avoid any prohibition of fishing or hunting, so as to only apply to religious sacrifice.

The second reason was that the State has an obligation to provide “strict scrutiny” to laws which infringe on religious practice.  The strict scrutiny requirement demands that there must be a compelling government interest in demanding or prohibiting a behavior; that is, the law must be written to be as narrow as possible, and it must be the least restrictive means of accomplishing the goal.  As such, the Court had to overturn the law.

Scalia wrote a concurrence reiterating his longstanding objection to utilizing legislative intent in decisions, and Blackmun and O’Conner concurred but said that they only agreed with the Court’s decision due to the legislative intent prong of the rationale and mentioned how persuaded they were by PETA’s Amicus brief.  Souder wrote an extremely ‘Souder’ concurrence (long and not terribly illuminating), where he objected to the reading of one particular of case as precedent.

So the question is: where do we draw the line? Of course, if Aum Shinrikyo comes to town trying to precipitate doomsday using sarin gas, we have to shut that right down.  On the other end of the extreme, we all agree that the Eucharist should be an exception to underage drinking laws.  But where is the line?

I think the answer that comes to mind first, that the line is where people start getting hurt, is a little over-simple and hand-wave-y.  For example, I once lived in an area where the Wiccan community wished to build a religious elementary school, and locals were trying to zone that possibility out.  As Christians, we know that raising a child as a Wiccan is actually hurting that child, but, as little as we might want the school built, we must let them; then, as Christians, we must persuade no one to attend.  We also know from our secular reasoning that the Amish pulling their children from school after eighth grade or the Christian Scientists’ faith healing does hurt people but is allowable.  It’s a hard needle to thread.

What to you think?  I’d also love to hear a more comprehensive discussion about what religious freedom is or should be in the comments!  See you next week!

[1] I’m not gonna lie here, this is my kind of City Council.