The Supreme Court on Santería - 7
Text of the court ruling
Commentary on the text
3[508 U.S. 520, 525]
    Petitioner Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. (Church), is a not-for-profit corporation organized under Florida law in 1973. The Church and its congregants practice the Santeria religion. The president of the Church is petitioner Ernesto Pichardo, who is also the Church's priest and holds the religious title of Italero, the second highest in the Santeria faith. In April, 1987, the Church leased [508 U.S. 520, 526] land in the city of Hialeah, Florida, and announced plans to establish a house of worship as well as a school, cultural center, and museum. Pichardo indicated that the Church's goal was to bring the practice of the Santeria faith, including its ritual of animal sacrifice, into the open. The Church began the process of obtaining utility service and receiving the necessary licensing, inspection, and zoning approvals. Although the Church's efforts at obtaining the necessary licenses and permits were far from smooth, see 723 F.Supp., at 1477-1478, it appears that it received all needed approvals by early August, 1987.

     The prospect of a Santeria church in their midst was distressing to many members of the Hialeah community, and the announcement of the plans to open a Santeria church in Hialeah prompted the city council to hold an emergency public session on June 9, 1987. The resolutions and ordinances passed at that and later meetings are set forth in the Appendix following this opinion.

     A summary suffices here, beginning with the enactments passed at the June 9 meeting. First, the city council adopted Resolution 87-66, which noted the "concern" expressed by residents of the city "that certain religions may propose to engage in practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety," and declared that "[t]he City reiterates its commitment to a prohibition against any and all acts of any and all religious groups which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety." Next, the council approved an emergency ordinance, Ordinance 87-40, which incorporated in full, except as to penalty, Florida's animal cruelty laws. Fla.Stat. ch. 828 (1987). Among other things, the incorporated state law subjected to criminal punishment "[w]hoever . . . unnecessarily or cruelly . . . kills any animal." 828.12.

     The city council desired to undertake further legislative action, but Florida law prohibited a municipality from enacting legislation relating to animal cruelty that conflicted with [508 U.S. 520, 527] state law. 828.27(4) [sic. The correct citation is 828.28(6) - PB]. To obtain clarification, Hialeah's city attorney requested an opinion from the attorney general of Florida as to whether 828.12 prohibited "a religious group from sacrificing an animal in a religious ritual or practice," and whether the city could enact ordinances "making religious animal sacrifice unlawful." The attorney general responded in mid-July. He concluded that the "ritual sacrifice of animals for purposes other than food consumption" was not a "necessary" killing, and so was prohibited by 828.12. Fla.Op.Atty.Gen. 87-56, Annual Report of the Atty.Gen. 146, 147, 149 (1988). The attorney general appeared to define "unnecessary" as "done without any useful motive, in a spirit of wanton cruelty or for the mere pleasure of destruction without being in any sense beneficial or useful to the person killing the animal." Id., at 149, n. 11. He advised that religious animal sacrifice was against state law, so that a city ordinance prohibiting it would not be in conflict. Id., at 151.

     The city council responded at first with a hortatory enactment, Resolution 87-90, that noted its residents' "great concern regarding the possibility of public ritualistic animal sacrifices" and the state-law prohibition. The resolution declared the city policy "to oppose the ritual sacrifices of animals" within Hialeah, and announced that any person or organization practicing animal sacrifice "will be prosecuted."

     In September, 1987, the city council adopted three substantive ordinances addressing the issue of religious animal sacrifice. Ordinance 87-52 defined "sacrifice" as "to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption," and prohibited owning or possessing an animal "intending to use such animal for food purposes." It restricted application of this prohibition, however, to any individual or group that "kills, slaughters or sacrifices animals for any type of ritual, regardless of whether or not the flesh or blood of the animal is to be consumed." The ordinance [508 U.S. 520, 528] contained an exemption for slaughtering by "licensed establishment[s]" of animals "specifically raised for food purposes." Declaring, moreover, that the city council has determined that the sacrificing of animals within the city limits is contrary to the public health, safety, welfare and morals of the community," the city council adopted Ordinance 87-71. That ordinance defined sacrifice as had Ordinance 87-52, and then provided that "[i]t shall be unlawful for any person, persons, corporations or associations to sacrifice any animal within the corporate limits of the City of Hialeah, Florida." The final Ordinance, 87-72, defined "slaughter" as "the killing of animals for food," and prohibited slaughter outside of areas zoned for slaughterhouse use. The ordinance provided an exemption, however, for the slaughter or processing for sale of "small numbers of hogs and/or cattle per week in accordance with an exemption provided by state law." All ordinances and resolutions passed the city council by unanimous vote. Violations of each of the four ordinances were punishable by fines not exceeding $500 or imprisonment not exceeding 60 days, or both.

     Following enactment of these ordinances, the Church and Pichardo filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Named as defendants were the city of Hialeah and its mayor and members of its city council in their individual capacities. Alleging violations of petitioners' rights under, inter alia, the Free Exercise Clause, the complaint sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive and monetary relief. The District Court granted summary judgment to the individual defendants, finding that they had absolute immunity for their legislative acts and that the ordinances and resolutions adopted by the council did not constitute an official policy of harassment, as alleged by petitioners. 688 F.Supp. 1522 (SD Fla. 1988).

     After a 9-day bench trial on the remaining claims, the District Court ruled for the city, finding no violation of[508 U.S. 520, 529] petitioners' rights under the Free Exercise Clause. 723 F.Supp. 1467 (SD Fla. 1989). (The court rejected as well petitioners' other claims, which are not at issue here.) Although acknowledging that "the ordinances are not religiously neutral," id., at 1476, and that the city's concern about animal sacrifice was "prompted" by the establishment of the Church in the city, id., at 1479, the District Court concluded that the purpose of the ordinances was not to exclude the Church from the city, but to end the practice of animal sacrifice, for whatever reason practiced, id., at 1479, 1483. The court also found that the ordinances did not target religious conduct "on their face," though it noted that, in any event, "specifically regulating [religious] conduct" does not violate the First Amendment "when [the conduct] is deemed inconsistent with public health and welfare." Id., at 1483-1484. Thus, the court concluded that, at most, the ordinances' effect on petitioners' religious conduct was "incidental to [their] secular purpose and effect." Id., at 1484.

     The District Court proceeded to determine whether the governmental interests underlying the ordinances were compelling and, if so, to balance the "governmental and religious interests." The court noted that "[t]his "balance depends upon the cost to the government of altering its activity to allow the religious practice to continue unimpeded versus the cost to the religious interest imposed by the government activity." Ibid., quoting Grosz v. City of Miami Beach, 721 F.2d 729, 734 (CA 11 1983), cert. denied, 469 U.S. 827 (1984). The court found four compelling interests. First, the court found that animal sacrifices present a substantial health risk, both to participants and the general public. According to the court, animals that are to be sacrificed are often kept in unsanitary conditions and are uninspected, and animal remains are found in public places. 723 F.Supp., at 1474-1475, 1485. Second, the court found emotional injury to children who witness the sacrifice of animals. Id., at 1475-1476, 1485-1486.     Third, the court found compelling [508 U.S. 520, 530] the city's interest in protecting animals from cruel and unnecessary killing. The court determined that the method of killing used in Santeria sacrifice was "unreliable and not humane, and that the animals, before being sacrificed, are often kept in conditions that produce a great deal of fear and stress in the animal." Id., at 1472-1473, 1486. Fourth, the District Court found compelling the city's interest in restricting the slaughter or sacrifice of animals to areas zoned for slaughterhouse use. Id., at 1486. This legal determination was not accompanied by factual findings.

     Balancing the competing governmental and religious interests, the District Court concluded the compelling governmental interests "fully justify the absolute prohibition on ritual sacrifice" accomplished by the ordinances. Id., at 1487. The court also concluded that an exception to the sacrifice prohibition for religious conduct would "`unduly interfere with fulfillment of the governmental interest'" because any more narrow restrictions - e.g., regulation of disposal of animal carcasses - would be unenforceable as a result of the secret nature of the Santeria religion. Id., at 1486-1487, and nn. 57-59. A religious exemption from the city's ordinances, concluded the court, would defeat the city's compelling interests in enforcing the prohibition. Id., at 1487.

     The Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed in a one-paragraph per curiam opinion. Judgt. order reported at 936 F.2d 586 (1991). Choosing not to rely on the District Court's recitation of a compelling interest in promoting the welfare of children, the Court of Appeals stated simply that it concluded the ordinances were consistent with the Constitution. App. to Pet. for Cert. A2. It declined to address the effect of Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990), decided after the District Court's opinion, because the District Court "employed an arguably stricter standard" than that applied in Smith. App. to Pet. for Cert. A2, n. 1. 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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