The Supreme Court on Santería - 10
Text of the court ruling
Commentary on the text
3 [508 U.S. 520, 533]
    Although a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible, McDaniel v. Paty, supra, at 626 (plurality opinion); Cantwell v. Connecticut, supra, at 303-304, if the object of a law is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation, the law is not neutral, see Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, supra, at 878-879, and it is invalid unless it is justified by a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to advance that interest. There are, of course, many ways of demonstrating that the object or purpose of a law is the suppression of religion or religious conduct. To determine the object of a law, we must begin with its text, for the minimum requirement of neutrality is that a law not discriminate on its face. A law lacks facial neutrality if it refers to a religious practice without a secular meaning discernable from the language or context. Petitioners contend that three of the ordinances fail this test of facial neutrality because they use the words [508 U.S. 520, 534] "sacrifice" and "ritual," words with strong religious connotations. Brief for Petitioners 16-17. We agree that these words are consistent with the claim of facial discrimination, but the argument is not conclusive. The words "sacrifice" and "ritual" have a religious origin, but current use admits also of secular meanings. See Webster's Third New International Dictionary 1961, 1996 (1971). See also 12 Encyclopedia of Religion, at 556 ("[T]he word sacrifice ultimately became very much a secular term in common usage"). The ordinances, furthermore, define "sacrifice" in secular terms, without referring to religious practices.

     We reject the contention advanced by the city, see Brief for Respondent 15, that our inquiry must end with the text of the laws at issue. Facial neutrality is not determinative. The Free Exercise Clause, like the Establishment Clause, extends beyond facial discrimination. The Clause "forbids subtle departures from neutrality," Gillette v. United States, 401 U.S. 437, 452 (1971), and "covert suppression of particular religious beliefs," Bowen v. Roy, supra, at 703 (opinion of Burger, C.J.). Official action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment cannot be shielded by mere compliance with the requirement of facial neutrality. The Free Exercise Clause protects against governmental hostility which is masked as well as overt. "The Court must survey meticulously the circumstances of governmental categories to eliminate, as it were, religious gerrymanders." Walz v. Tax Comm'n of New York City, 397 U.S. 664, 696 (1970) (Harlan, J., concurring).

     The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship service was the object of the ordinances. First, though use of the words "sacrifice" and "ritual" does not compel a finding of improper targeting of the Santeria religion, the choice of these words is support for our conclusion. There are further respects in which the text of the city council's enactments discloses the improper attempt to target Santeria. [508 U.S. 520, 535] Resolution 87-66, adopted June 9, 1987, recited that "residents and citizens of the City of Hialeah have expressed their concern that certain religions may propose to engage in practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety," and "reiterate[d]" the city's commitment to prohibit "any and all [such] acts of any and all religious groups." No one suggests, and, on this record, it cannot be maintained, that city officials had in mind a religion other than Santeria.

     It becomes evident that these ordinances target Santeria sacrifice when the ordinances' operation is considered. Apart from the text, the effect of a law in its real operation is strong evidence of its object. To be sure, adverse impact will not always lead to a finding of impermissible targeting. For example, a social harm may have been a legitimate concern of government for reasons quite apart from discrimination. McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S., at 442. See, e.g., Be v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1879); Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890). See also Ely, Legislative and Administrative Motivation in Constitutional Law, 79 Yale L.J. 1205, 1319 (1970). The subject at hand does implicate, of course, multiple concerns unrelated to religious animosity, for example, the suffering or mistreatment visited upon the sacrificed animals and health hazards from improper disposal. But the ordinances, when considered together, disclose an object remote from these legitimate concerns. The design of these laws accomplishes, instead, a "religious gerrymander," Walz v. Tax Comm'n of New York City, supra, at 696 (Harlan, J., concurring), an impermissible attempt to target petitioners and their religious practices.

     It is a necessary conclusion that almost the only conduct subject to Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71 is the religious exercise of Santeria church members. The texts show that they were drafted in tandem to achieve this result. We begin with Ordinance 87-71. It prohibits the sacrifice of animals, but defines sacrifice as "to unnecessarily kill . . . an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the [508 U.S. 520, 536] primary purpose of food consumption." The definition excludes almost all killings of animals except for religious sacrifice, and the primary purpose requirement narrows the proscribed category even further, in particular by exempting kosher slaughter, see 723 F.Supp., at 1480. We need not discuss whether this differential treatment of two religions is, itself, an independent constitutional violation. Cf. Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S., at 244-246. It suffices to recite this feature of the law as support for our conclusion that Santeria alone was the exclusive legislative concern. The net result of the gerrymander is that few, if any, killings of animals are prohibited other than Santeria sacrifice, which is proscribed because it occurs during a ritual or ceremony and its primary purpose is to make an offering to the orishas, not food consumption. Indeed, careful drafting ensured that, although Santeria sacrifice is prohibited, killings that are no more necessary or humane in almost all other circumstances are unpunished.

     Operating in similar fashion is Ordinance 87-52, which prohibits the "possess[ion], sacrifice, or slaughter" of an animal with the "inten[t] to use such animal for food purposes." This prohibition, extending to the keeping of an animal, as well as the killing itself, applies if the animal is killed in "any type of ritual" and there is an intent to use the animal for food, whether or not it is in fact consumed for food. The ordinance exempts, however, "any licensed [food] establishment" with regard to "any animals which are specifically raised for food purposes," if the activity is permitted by zoning and other laws. This exception, too, seems intended to cover Kosher slaughter. Again, the burden of the ordinance, in practical terms, falls on Santeria adherents, but almost no others: if the killing is - unlike most Santeria sacrifices - unaccompanied by the intent to use the animal for food, then it is not prohibited by Ordinance 87-52; if the killing is specifically for food, but does not occur during the course of "any type of ritual," it again falls outside the prohibition; and [508 U.S. 520, 537] if the killing is for food and occurs during the course of a ritual, it is still exempted if it occurs in a properly zoned and licensed establishment and involves animals "specifically raised for food purposes." A pattern of exemptions parallels the pattern of narrow prohibitions. Each contributes to the gerrymander.

     Ordinance 87-40 incorporates the Florida animal cruelty statute, Fla.Stat. 828.12 (1987). Its prohibition is broad on its face, punishing "[w]hoever . . . unnecessarily . . . kills any animal." The city claims that this ordinance is the epitome of a neutral prohibition. Brief for Respondent 13-14. The problem, however, is the interpretation given to the ordinance by respondent and the Florida attorney general. Killings for religious reasons are deemed unnecessary, whereas most other killings fall outside the prohibition. The city, on what seems to be a per se basis, deems hunting, slaughter of animals for food, eradication of insects and pests, and euthanasia as necessary. See id., at 22. There is no indication in the record that respondent has concluded that hunting or fishing for sport is unnecessary. Indeed, one of the few reported Florida cases decided under 828.12 concludes that the use of live rabbits to train greyhounds is not unnecessary. See Kiper v. State, 310 So.2d 42 (Fla. App.), cert. denied, 328 So.2d 845 (Fla. 1975). Further, because it requires an evaluation of the particular justification for the killing, this ordinance represents a system of "individualized governmental assessment of the reasons for the relevant conduct," Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S., at 884. As we noted in Smith, in circumstances in which individualized exemptions from a general requirement are available, the government "may not refuse to extend that system to cases of `religious hardship' without compelling reason." ibid. quoting Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S., at 708 (opinion of Burger, C.J.). Respondent's application of the ordinance's test of necessity devalues religious reasons for killing by judging them to be of lesser import than nonreligious [508 U.S. 520, 538] reasons. Thus, religious practice is being singled out for discriminatory treatment. Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S., at 722, and n. 17 (STEVENS, J., concurring in part and concurring in result), id., at 708 (opinion of Burger, C.J.); United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252, 264, n. 3 (1982) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment).

     We also find significant evidence of the ordinances' improper targeting of Santeria sacrifice in the fact that they proscribe more religious conduct than is necessary to achieve their stated ends. It is not unreasonable to infer, at least when there are no persuasive indications to the contrary, that a law which visits "gratuitous restrictions" on religious conduct, McGowan v. Maryland, 366 U.S., at 520 (opinion of Frankfurter, J.), seeks not to effectuate the stated governmental interests, but to suppress the conduct because of its religious motivation.

     The [legitimate governmental interests in protecting the public health and preventing cruelty to animals could be addressed by restrictions stopping far short of a flat prohibition of all Santeria sacrificial practice.] *3 If improper disposal, not the sacrifice itself, is the harm to be prevented, the city could have imposed a general regulation on the disposal of organic garbage. It did not do so. Indeed, counsel for the city conceded at oral argument that, under the ordinances, Santeria sacrifices would be illegal even if they occurred in licensed, inspected, and zoned slaughterhouses. Tr. of Oral Arg. 45. See also id., at 42, 48. Thus, these broad ordinances prohibit Santeria sacrifice even when it does not threaten the city's [508 U.S. 520, 539] interest in the public health. The District Court accepted the argument that narrower regulation would be unenforceable because of the secrecy in the Santeria rituals and the lack of any central religious authority to require compliance with secular disposal regulations. See 723 F.Supp., at 1486-1487, and nn. 58-59. It is difficult to understand, however, how a prohibition of the sacrifices themselves, which occur in private, is enforceable if a ban on improper disposal, which occurs in public, is not. The neutrality of a law is suspect if First Amendment freedoms are curtailed to prevent isolated collateral harms not themselves prohibited by direct regulation. See, e.g., Schneider v. State, 308 U.S. 147, 162 (1939).

     Under similar analysis, narrower regulation would achieve the city's interest in preventing cruelty to animals. With regard to the city's interest in ensuring the adequate care of animals, regulation of conditions and treatment, regardless of why an animal is kept, is the logical response to the city's concern, not a prohibition on possession for the purpose of sacrifice. The same is true for the city's interest in prohibiting cruel methods of killing. Under federal and Florida law and Ordinance 87-40, which incorporates Florida law in this regard, killing an animal by the "simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument" - the method used in kosher slaughter - is approved as humane. See 7 U.S.C. 1902(b); Fla.Stat. 828.23(7)(b) (1991); Ordinance 87-40, 1. The District Court found that, though Santeria sacrifice also results in severance of the carotid arteries, the method used during sacrifice is less reliable, and therefore not humane. See 723 F.Supp., at 1472-1473. If the city has a real concern that other methods are less humane, however, the subject of the regulation should be the method of slaughter itself, not a religious classification that is said to bear some general relation to it.

     Ordinance 87-72 - unlike the three other ordinances - does appear to apply to substantial nonreligious conduct, and [508 U.S. 520, 540] not to be overbroad. For our purposes here, however, the four substantive ordinances may be treated as a group for neutrality purposes. Ordinance 87-72 was passed the same day as Ordinance 87-71, and was enacted, as were the three others, in direct response to the opening of the Church. It would be implausible to suggest that the three other ordinances, but not Ordinance 87-72, had as their object the suppression of religion. We need not decide whether the Ordinance 87-72 could survive constitutional scrutiny if it existed separately; it must be invalidated because it functions, with the rest of the enactments in question, to suppress Santeria religious worship.  4

*3 Respondent advances the additional governmental interest in prohibiting the slaughter or sacrifice of animals in areas of the city not zoned for slaughterhouses, see Brief for Respondent 28-31, and the District court found this interest to be compelling, see 723 F.Supp. 1467, 1486 (SD Fla. 1989). This interest cannot justify Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71, for they apply to conduct without regard to where it occurs. Ordinance 87-72 does impose a locational restriction, but this asserted governmental interest is a mere restatement of the prohibition itself, not a justification for it. In our discussion, therefore we put aside this asserted interest. 4
Title Page
Opinions, Briefs, Arguments
I  Overview
I-A  Santería Religion
I-B  Case History
II  Free Exercise Clause
II-A  Neutrality
II-A-1  Compelling Interest
II-A-2  Equal Protection
II-A-3  Summary
II-B  General Applicability
III  Ordinances Fail Scrutiny
IV  Conclusion
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