Santeria, a syncretistic Caribbean religion:
Conflicts concerning Santeria sacrifices:
animal and human; real and imaginary
1989: The Matamoros Incident:
In early 1989, the bodies of over a dozen murdered men were found in
close to the Texas border. A media frenzy resulted in which the killings were blamed on
Satanists, Witches, Voodoo priests, and/or Santerians. Everybody seemed to have a different
theory. After the lurid headlines died down and the police investigation concluded, the
murderers were found to be orchestrated by an individual hired by a criminal gang of drug
runners in order to obtain protection from the police for the gang members. The gang members happened to be followers
of a variety of religious groups common to the area including Christianity, Palo Mayombe
and Santeria. But no link was ever found between their faith and their drug running or
murderous practices. The immediate cause of the murders was the gang leader's
requirement that the
members watch a Hollywood movie called The Believers a total of 14 times. That
movie took elements of the Santerian faith, and added concepts foreign to the religion,
including human sacrifice. If a single influencing cause needs to be assigned to the
murder, it should be that movie.
1987: Animal sacrifices in Hialeah, FL:
There has been considerable friction between Santerians and groups promoting the care and
treatment of animals. The source of the conflict is the animal sacrifices which form an
integral part of some Santerian rituals. Chickens and other small animals are ritually
sacrificed, often at times of serious sickness or misfortune, and at times of initiation
of new members. Santerians defend their practices by pointing out:
||The animals are killed in a humane manner.
||They are generally eaten later, just as the many of millions
of animals slaughtered daily in North American commercial establishments.
Ritual sacrifice of animals was extensively practiced in ancient Israel and was only
discontinued after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in the eighth decade
||They feel that the sacrifices must continue because their Orisha require the food.
(The Orisha are various manifestations of God).
||Animal sacrifices have formed a part of their religion for over one millennium.
||The constitutions of the United States and Canada guarantee freedom of religious
They have won a number of court cases; one went all the way to the
US Supreme Court.
Many individuals and groups who attempt to raise
public awareness Ritual Abuse or of Satanic Ritual
Abuse often mistakenly use these killings as evidence of human sacrifice by religious
minorities. Ritual abuse and murder does exist, and there are many dead bodies to prove
it. But instances to date have had no connection with Santeria or any other small faith
group. Most of the deaths have been caused by unintentional murder during
The Hialeah case was settled in 1993 by the U.S. Supreme Court.
1993: Text of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Hialeah case: Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc,. et al. v. City of Hialeah:
Certiorari to the United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh
Argued November 4, 1992-Decided June 11, 1993
Petitioner church and its congregants practice the Santeria religion, which employs
animal sacrifice as one of its principal forms of devotion. The animals are killed by
cutting their carotid arteries and are cooked and eaten following all Santeria rituals
except healing and death rites. After the church leased land in respondent city and
announced plans to establish a house of worship and other facilities there, the city
council held an emergency public session and passed, among other enactments,
Resolution 87-66, which noted city residents' "concern" over
religious practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety, and declared the
city's "commitment" to prohibiting such practices;
Ordinance 87-40, which incorporates the Florida animal cruelty laws and broadly
punishes "[w]hoever ... unnecessarily or cruelly ... kills any animal,"
and has been interpreted to reach killings for religious reasons;
Ordinance 87-52, which defines "sacrifice" as "to
unnecessarily kill ... an animal in a ... ritual ... not for the primary purpose of food
consumption," and prohibits the "possess[ion], sacrifice, or
slaughter" of an animal if it is killed in "any type of ritual"
and there is an intent to use it for food, but exempts "any licensed [food]
establishment" if the killing is otherwise permitted by law;
Ordinance 87-71, which prohibits the sacrifice of animals, and defines "sacrifice"
in the same manner as Ordinance 87-52; and
Ordinance 87-72, which defines "slaughter" as "the
killing of animals for food" and prohibits slaughter outside of areas zoned for
slaughterhouses, but includes an exemption for "small numbers of hogs and/or
cattle" when exempted by state law.
Petitioners filed this suit under 42 U. S. C. 1983, alleging violations of their rights
under, inter alia, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Although
acknowledging that the foregoing ordinances are not religiously neutral, the District
Court ruled for the city, concluding, among other things, that compelling governmental
interests in preventing public health risks and cruelty to animals fully justified the
absolute prohibition on ritual sacrifice accomplished by the ordinances, and that an
exception to that prohibition for religious conduct would unduly interfere with
fulfillment of the governmental interest because any more narrow restrictions would be
unenforceable as a result of the Santeria religion's secret nature. The Court of Appeals
Held: The judgment is reversed.
936 F. 2d 586, reversed.
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. 8-18, 20-26.
||(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 Oregon 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. 8-9.
(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. 11-18.
(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 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. 21-24.
||(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. 24-26.
Kennedy, J., delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, III, and IV,
in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White, Stevens, Scalia, Souter, and Thomas, JJ., joined,
the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II-B, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and White,
Stevens, Scalia, and Thomas, JJ., joined, the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts
II-A-1 and II-A-3, in which Rehnquist, C. J., and Stevens, Scalia, and Thomas,
joined, and an opinion with respect to Part II-A-2, in which Stevens, J., joined.
J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which
Rehnquist, C. J., joined. Souter, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring
in the judgment. Blackmun, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which
O'Connor, J., joined. 1
2006: Animal sacrifice in Euless, TX:
In the year 2000, we speculated in this essay: "Sufficient court precedence has now been
established; there should not be any new legal problems in this area." But
as the case below shows, our statement was premature. Religious freedom is guaranteed by
the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But it
is not necessarily granted automatically to religious minorities without a fight.
Followers of Santeria believe that "... the energy contained in blood of
an animal sacrifice opens a channel of direct communication with the Orishas."
Ritually sacrificing an animal -- often a chicken or goat -- and later cooking
and eating it, forms a major part of Santeria religious practice. Typically, the
animals are taken to the place of the sacrifice -- typically a private home --
just before the service.
During 2006-MAY, a neighbor of Jose Merced, a Santeria priest and president
of Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha Texas, complained to the city that Merced and
fellow believers were going to hold religious service in the priest's home.
Several goats were to be sacrificed during an initiation ceremony.
An animal control officer told him that it was:
"... against city ordinance to slaughter
animals but he was unsure if it would be ok if it was done for religious
When Merced asked for a permit that would enable him to legally perform
animal sacrifices, the city development staff said "absolutely not."
Under the city's ordinance, he would be allowed to sacrifice chickens, as long
as the meat was later eaten. However, goats cannot be killed within city limits
for any reason.
Merced filed a lawsuit in 2006-DEC. Various national religious freedom and
Latino advocacy groups have sent letters to the city. They cite the above 1993
decision of the U.S. Supreme Court which appears to be a near duplicate of the
Euless conflict. K.B. Forbes, executive director of
of Consejo de Latinos Unidos said:
"It's absolutely disappointing that they're spending taxpayers' money to
fight a lawsuit that was settled 10 years ago."
Merced's team claims that a federal law passed in the year 2000 called the
Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act
(RLUIPA) is applicable here. It requires municipalities to prove a compelling
interest if it wishes to limit a religious practice. If it does prove such an
interest, it has to intrude in the least restrictive way possible. However, the
city views the case differently -- as a health and safety law, not a land-use
law. They also feel that RLUIA is unconstitutional for a variety of reasons:
||By passing the law, Congress excessively intrudes on states' right to
regulate the health and welfare of its citizens.
City attorney William McKamie said: "If the local government
officers, before they enforce a general ordinance, were forced to question
people's beliefs and practices, that would be entanglement in religion,
which is clearly unconstitutional."
||McKamie also claims that if the city made an exception to its ordinance
in cases involving religious sacrifice then the city would end up endorsing
Santeria because it would be favoring a religious group over a secular one.
"Euless has a broad religious base there. It's been a very tolerant city
forever. It's just surprising that someone would claim otherwise." 4
Mr. Merced did not agree. He said:
"I've had four ceremonies, and they always come down and tell me I can't
do it. That's not being tolerant. They said, 'If I come back here, I'll
arrest you and fine you.' That's being tolerant?" 2
On 2007-MAR-21, McKamie sent a letter to Merced suggesting that the lawsuit
be settled with a compromise. They would permit ritual sacrifices if:
||Only chickens or turkeys were killed.
||Fewer than 26 people would be involved.
||The ritual would have to take place inside the house, and not be visible
to the public.
||The services would be limited to under six times per calendar month.
The compromise is unacceptable to Merced. 3
"You cannot do initiations without an animal with four legs. You cannot
do it with just chickens. Without that, the religion ceases to exist."
"Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc.
et al. v. City of Hialeah, No.
91-948," Supreme Court collection, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law
Michael Grabell, "Euless tries to block Santeria lawsuit. Euless: Judge
asked to dismiss priest's challenge to longtime ban on killing animals," The
Dallas Morning News, 2007-FEB-03, at:
Jessica Deleon, "Santeria Priest Rejects Texas City's Deal in Clash Over
Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2007-MAR-22, at:
"Cross Reference - Santeria and Animal Sacrifice," The Pluralism
Project, Harvard University, at:
Non-court sections copyrighted © 2000 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.
Latest update: 2009-FEB-07
Author: B.A. Robinson