Civil Liberties

Getting His Goat

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Jose Merced, a Santeria priest in Euless, Texas, is challenging the city's refusal to let him sacrifice goats. Last month a federal judge upheld Euless' ban on animal sacrifice, and today the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an appeal on Merced's behalf with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit.

In Employment Division v. Smith, a 1988 case involving the Native American Church's peyote rituals, the U.S. Supreme Court held that "neutral laws of general applicability" do not violate the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom merely because they make it difficult or impossible for someone to practice his religion. But five years later, in a case that seems quite similar to Merced's, the Court unanimously overturned ordinances banning animal sacrifice in Hialeah, Florida. Since those ordinances, a direct response to the opening of a Santeria church, singled out the type of animal slaughter practiced by Santerians, the Court concluded they were not "neutral laws of general applicability." Hence they could be justified only if they were narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest, which they weren't. Although Euless claims to be protecting public health, it likewise prohibits religious slaughter in particular, while allowing the killing of deer and other animals for food. Becket Fund attorney Lori Windham asks:

Why is it okay to butcher a deer in Euless, but not a goat? The issue of Santeria and animal sacrifice has already been decided by the United States Supreme Court. I'm pretty sure the Constitution of the United States still applies in Euless, Texas.

Last year I explored the legal fallout from Smith in a reason story about religious use of drugs.