Getting His Goat

Religious freedom in Texas


Jose Merced wants to cut a few throats, but the city of Euless, Texas, won't let him. Merced, a Santeria priest, is challenging a local ordinance that prohibits the slaughter of goats, an essential part of the sacrifices required by his Afro-Caribbean religion.

In April, after U.S. District Judge John McBryde upheld the slaughter ban, the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty filed an appeal on Merced's behalf, contending that the ordinance violates his constitutional right to the free exercise of religion. Its argument relies heavily on Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, a 1993 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a city ban on animal sacrifice. That law was ostensibly a public health measure, but the court decided it violated the First Amendment because it singled out religious slaughter and was passed in response to the establishment of a Santeria church.

The Euless ordinance allows the butchering of deer and the slaughter of "domesticated fowl considered as general tablefare" but not the killing of goats, even though Santerians eat them as part of their ritual. Because of this selectiveness, Merced's attorneys argue, the ordinance should not be deemed a "neutral law of general applicability," which the Supreme Court has said passes First Amendment muster even if it bans an activity central to someone's religion. "The issue of Santeria and animal sacrifice has already been decided by the United States Supreme Court," says Becket Fund attorney Lori Windham. "I'm pretty sure the Constitution of the United States still applies."