The Supreme Court on Santería - 13
Text of the court ruling
Commentary on the text
3[508 U.S. 520, 542]
    We turn next to a second requirement of the Free Exercise Clause, the rule that laws burdening religious practice must be of general applicability. Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S., at 879-881. All laws are selective to some extent, but categories of selection are of paramount concern when a law has the incidental effect of burdening religious practice. The Free Exercise Clause "protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment," Hobbie v. Unemployment Appeals Comm'n of Fla., 480 U.S. 136, 148 (1987) (STEVENS, J., concurring in judgment), and inequality results when a legislature decides that [508 U.S. 520, 543] the governmental interests it seeks to advance are worthy of being pursued only against conduct with a religious motivation.

     The principle that government, in pursuit of legitimate interests, cannot in a [selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief] is essential to the protection of the rights guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause. The principle underlying the general applicability requirement has parallels in our First Amendment jurisprudence. See, e.g., Cohen v. Cowles Media Co., 501 U.S. 66, 669-670; (1991); University of Pennsylvania v. EEOC, 493 U.S. 182, 201 (1990); Minneapolis Star & Tribune Co. v. Minnesota Comm'r of Revenue, 460 U.S. 575, 585 (1983); Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S., at 245-246; Presbyterian Church in U.S. v. Mary Elizabeth Blue Hull Memorial Presbyterian Church, 393 U.S. 440, 449 (1969). In this case, we [need not define with precision the standard used to evaluate whether a prohibition is of general application, for these ordinances fall well below the minimum standard necessary to protect First Amendment rights.]

     Respondent claims that Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71 advance two interests: protecting the public health and preventing cruelty to animals. The ordinances are underinclusive for those ends. They fail to prohibit nonreligious conduct that endangers these interests in a similar or greater degree than Santeria sacrifice does. The underinclusion is substantial, not inconsequential. [Despite the city's proffered interest in preventing cruelty to animals, the ordinances are drafted with care to forbid few killings but those occasioned by religious sacrifice.] Many types of animal deaths or kills for nonreligious reasons are either not prohibited or approved by express provision. For example, fishing - which occurs in Hialeah, see A. Khedouri & F. Khedouri, South Florida Inside Out 57 (1991) - is legal. Extermination of mice and rats within a home is also permitted. Florida law incorporated by Ordinance 87-40 [508 U.S. 520, 544] sanctions euthanasia of "stray, neglected, abandoned, or unwanted animals," Fla.Stat. 828.058 (1987); destruction of animals judicially removed from their owners "for humanitarian reasons" or when the animal "is of no commercial value," 828.073(4)(c)(2); the infliction of pain or suffering "in the interest of medical science," 828.02; the placing of poison in one's yard or enclosure, 828.08; and the use of a live animal "to pursue or take wildlife or to participate in any hunting," 828.122(6)(b), and "to hunt wild hogs," 828.122(6)(e).

     The city concedes that "neither the State of Florida nor the City has enacted a generally applicable ban on the killing of animals." Brief for Respondent 21. It asserts, however, that animal sacrifice is "different" from the animal killings that are permitted by law. Ibid. According to the city, it is "self-evident" that killing animals for food is "important"; the eradication of insects and pests is "obviously justified"; and the euthanasia of excess animals "makes sense." Id., at 22. These ipse dixits do not explain why religion alone must bear the burden of the ordinances, when many of these secular killings fall within the city's interest in preventing the cruel treatment of animals.

     The [ordinances are also underinclusive with regard to the city's interest in public health], which is threatened by the disposal of animal carcasses in open public places and the consumption of uninspected meat, see Brief for Respondent 32, citing 723 F.Supp., at 1474-1475, 1485. Neither interest is pursued by respondent with regard to conduct that is not motivated by religious conviction. The health risks posed by the improper disposal of animal carcasses are the same whether Santeria sacrifice or some nonreligious killing preceded it. The city does not, however, prohibit hunters from bringing their kill to their houses, nor does it regulate disposal after their activity. Despite substantial testimony at trial that the same public health hazards result from improper disposal of garbage by restaurants, see 11 Record 566, [508 U.S. 520, 545] 590-591, restaurants are outside the scope of the ordinances. Improper disposal is a general problem that causes substantial health risks, 723 F.Supp., at 1485, but which respondent addresses only when it results from religious exercise.

     The ordinances are underinclusive as well with regard to the health risk posed by consumption of uninspected meat. Under the city's ordinances, hunters may eat their kill and fishermen may eat their catch without undergoing governmental inspection. Likewise, state law requires inspection of meat that is sold, but exempts meat from animals raised for the use of the owner and "members of his household and nonpaying guests and employees." Fla.Stat. 585.88(1)(a) (1991). The asserted interest in inspected meat is not pursued in contexts similar to that of religious animal sacrifice.

     Ordinance 87-72, which prohibits the slaughter of animals outside of areas zoned for slaughterhouses, is underinclusive on its face. The ordinance includes an exemption for "any person, group, or organization" that "slaughters or processes for sale, small numbers of hogs and/or cattle per week in accordance with an exemption provided by state law." See Fla.Stat. 828.24(3)  (1991). Respondent has not explained why commercial operations that slaughter "small numbers" of hogs and cattle do not implicate its professed desire to prevent cruelty to animals and preserve the public health. Although the city has classified Santeria sacrifice as slaughter, subjecting it to this ordinance, it does not regulate other killings for food in like manner.

     We conclude, in sum, that each of Hialeah's ordinances pursues the city's governmental interests only against conduct motivated by religious belief. The ordinances "ha[ve] every appearance of a prohibition that society is prepared to impose upon [Santeria worshippers], but not upon itself." Florida Star v. B.J.F., 491 U.S. 524, 542 (1989) (SCALIA, J., concurring in part and concurring in [508 U.S. 520, 546] judgment). This precise evil is what the requirement of general applicability is designed to prevent.  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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