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Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)

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Background Information

The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye was leasing land in Hialeah, Florida and planning to establish a church, school, cultural center, and musuem there.

Their religion was Santeria, which originated in Cuba in the 19th century and includes the ritual sacrifice of animals. In Santeria, ritual animal sacrifice is practiced at birth, marriage, and death rites. It is also used for curing the sick and other annual ceremonies.

In response to their plans to bring their religious ceremonies out into the open, the city of Hialeah passed several ordinances at an emergency public session on June 9, 1987 specifically prohibiting animal sacrifice of any sort. The Church saw these laws as a blatant attempt to violate their First Amendment rights to freely exercise their religion.

Court Decision

In 1993, the Court unanimously invalidated city ordinances outlawing animal sacrifices. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy noted that to avoid having to meet the compelling interest requirement, a law must be both neutral and generally applicable:

Official action that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment cannot be shielded by mere compliance with the requirement of facial neutrality. The Free Exercise Clause protects against governmental hostility which is masked as well as overt.

But Kennedy found that the laws in question were not of general applicability:

Although the practice of animal sacrifice may seem abhorrent to some, 'religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others in order to merit First Amendment protection.'

That the laws were designed for the express purpose of suppressing Santeria was demonstrated by the use of terms such as "ritual" and "sacrifice" in the statute. Furthermore, a resolution was also passed by the city which spoke openly against "practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace and safety," and "reiterated" the city's commitment to prohibit "any and all [such] acts of any and all religious groups."

The city tried to claim that they had two secular interests in passing the legislation: protecting the public health and preventing cruelty to animals. Unfortunately, the laws that were passed did not do very much to meet those goals. For example, they limited the laws to cover just the types of practices that would (coincidentally?) occur during Santeria practices.

Significance

This decision suported the constitutional standard created in Smith to determine whether a law violates the freedom of individuals' to exercise their religions. In order to not have to pass the compelling interest test, a law must be generally applicable and neutral. In particular, the government cannot pass laws which unfairly burden a minority religion, religious group, or religious doctrine.

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