The Supreme Court on Santería - 3
Text of the court ruling Commentary on the text
3[508 U.S. 520, 521]

   JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, II-A-1, II-A-3, II-B, III, and IV, concluding that the laws in question were enacted contrary to free exercise principles, and they are void. Pp. 531-540, 542-547.

 (a) Under the Free Exercise Clause, a law that burdens religious practice need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest if it is neutral and of general applicability. Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872. However, where such a law is not neutral or not of general application, it must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny: it must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. Neutrality and general applicability are interrelated, and failure to satisfy one requirement is a likely indication that the other has not been satisfied. Pp. 531-532.

(b) The ordinances' texts and operation demonstrate that they are not neutral, but have as their object the suppression of Santeria's central element, animal sacrifice. That this religious exercise has been targeted is evidenced by Resolution 87-66's statements of "concern" and "commitment," and by the use of the words "sacrifice" and "ritual" in Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71. Moreover, the latter ordinances' various prohibitions, definitions, and exemptions demonstrate that they were "gerrymandered" with care to proscribe religious killings of animals by Santeria church members but to exclude almost all other animal killings. They also suppress much more religious conduct than is necessary to achieve their stated ends. 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, such as general regulations on the disposal of organic garbage, on the care of animals regardless of why they are kept, or on methods of slaughter. Although Ordinance 87-72 appears to apply to substantial nonreligious conduct and not to be overbroad, it must also be invalidated because it functions in tandem with the other ordinances to suppress Santeria religious worship. Pp. 533-540.

c) Each of the ordinances pursues the city's governmental interests only against conduct motivated by religious belief, and thereby violates the requirement that laws burdening religious practice must be of general applicability. Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71 are substantially underinclusive with regard to the city's interest in preventing cruelty [508 U.S. 520, 522] to animals, since they are drafted with care to forbid few animal killings but those occasioned by religious sacrifice, while many types of animal deaths or kills for nonreligious reasons are either not prohibited or approved by express provision. The city's assertions that it is "self-evident" that killing for food is "important," that the eradication of insects and pests is "obviously justified," and that euthanasia of excess animals "makes sense" do not explain why religion alone must bear the burden of the ordinances. These ordinances are also substantially underinclusive with regard to the city's public health interests in preventing the disposal of animal carcasses in open public places and the consumption of uninspected meat, since neither interest is pursued by respondent with regard to conduct that is not motivated by religious conviction. Ordinance 87-72 is underinclusive on its face, since it does not regulate nonreligious slaughter for food in like manner, and respondent has not explained why the commercial slaughter of "small numbers" of cattle and hogs does not implicate its professed desire to prevent cruelty to animals and preserve the public health. Pp. 542-546.

(d) The ordinances cannot withstand the strict scrutiny that is required upon their failure to meet the Smith standard. They are not narrowly tailored to accomplish the asserted governmental interests. All four are overbroad or underinclusive in substantial respects because the proffered objectives are not pursued with respect to analogous nonreligious conduct, and those interests could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree. Moreover, where, as here, government restricts only conduct protected by the First Amendment and fails to enact feasible measures to restrict other conduct producing substantial harm or alleged harm of the same sort, the governmental interests given in justification of the restriction cannot be regarded as compelling. Pp. 546-547.  4


  The First Amendment ("The Free Exercise of Religion Clause") does allow the State to prevent certain religious practices - as long as it has compelling non-religious reasons to do so and is neutral (even-handed and dispassionate) in imposing the laws on everyone.

  If, on the other hand, the laws are not compelling or neutral, they may infringe on religious freedom protected by the First Amendment.

  The Supreme Court concluded that the Hialeah Ordinances were not "neutral."  Their highly emotional language was hardly dispassionate. 

  The laws were also not "compelling."  This was shown by the fact that they sought to prevent Santería activities but did not make identical activities illegal if they were non-religious.

  The Ordinances were therefore underinclusive.

  They were also judged not to be "neutral" for a second reason.  They alleged that their goal was only to prevent cruelty to animals and safeguard public health. 

  In fact, the laws actually went out of their way to prevent many other Santería activities that had nothing to do with cruelty to animals or public safety.

  The laws' actual effect was much broader than their stated aim.  They were not "neutral" because they were overbroad.

  For example, the Ordinances objected to "ritual" killing of animals but allowed many other kinds of animal killings to occur.  They were underinclusive in regard to animal cruelty.

  Language in the laws shows that an emotional objection to Santería was their motive, not an impartial effort to prevent cruelty to all animals.

  The laws were also underinclusive concerning public safety.  Most of the public was allowed to dispose of animal waste in garbage cans.  Animal carcasses from "ritual sacrifice," however, were treated much more severely.  Only they posed a public health threat.

  Much of the Supreme Court's decision was based on the precedent of an earlier case, Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, otherwise known as "Smith."

  The Smith Rule requires that infringement on religious expression be permitted only under special circumstances.

  Smith provided the precedent that laws which infringe on religious expression must not be underinclusive:  they must instead be "pursued with respect to analogous nonreligious conduct." 

  Such laws must also not be overbroad:  they must instead be "narrow."  That is, they must achieve their ends while disturbing ("burdoning") religious practices as little as possible.

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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