Religious Tolerance logo

Santeria, a syncretistic Caribbean religion:

  Conflicts concerning Santeria sacrifices:
animal and human; real and imaginary

Sponsored link.

1989: The Matamoros Incident:

In early 1989, the bodies of over a dozen murdered men were found in Matamoros, Mexico, 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:

bullet The animals are killed in a humane manner.
bullet They are generally eaten later, just as the many of millions of animals slaughtered daily in North American commercial establishments.
bullet 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 CE.
bullet They feel that the sacrifices must continue because their Orisha require the food. (The Orisha are various manifestations of God).
bullet Animal sacrifices have formed a part of their religion for over one millennium.
bullet The constitutions of the United States and Canada guarantee freedom of religious expression.
bullet 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 Christian exorcisms.

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 Circuit

 No. 91-948. 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,
bullet 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;
bullet 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;
bullet 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;
bullet Ordinance 87-71, which prohibits the sacrifice of animals, and defines "sacrifice" in the same manner as Ordinance 87-52; and
bullet 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 affirmed.

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.
bullet (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.
bullet (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.
bullet (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.
bullet (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, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part II-A-2, in which Stevens, J., joined. Scalia, 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

Sponsored link

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 purposes."

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:

bullet By passing the law, Congress excessively intrudes on states' right to regulate the health and welfare of its citizens.
bullet 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."
bullet 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.

McKamie said:

"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:

bullet Only chickens or turkeys were killed.
bullet Fewer than 26 people would be involved.
bullet The ritual would have to take place inside the house, and not be visible to the public.
bullet The services would be limited to under six times per calendar month.

The compromise is unacceptable to Merced. 3 He said:

"You cannot do initiations without an animal with four legs. You cannot do it with just chickens. Without that, the religion ceases to exist."

References used:

  1. "Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. et al. v. City of Hialeah, No. 91-948," Supreme Court collection, Legal Information Institute, Cornell Law School, at:

  2. 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:
  3. Jessica Deleon, "Santeria Priest Rejects Texas City's Deal in Clash Over Animal Sacrifices,"
    Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 2007-MAR-22, at:
  4. "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

line.gif (538 bytes)
Sponsored link

Go to the previous page, or to the "Human rights" menu, or to the Santeria page or to the "Religious law" menu, or choose:


Go to home page  We would really appreciate your help

E-mail us about errors, etc.  Purchase a CD of this web site

FreeFind search, lists of new essays...  Having problems printing our essays?

Twitter link

Facebook icon

GooglePage Translator:

This page translator works on Firefox,
Opera, Chrome, and Safari browsers only

After translating, click on the "show
original" button at the top of this
page to restore page to English.