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Animal-sacrifice case highlights tensions over religious practices

By The Associated Press

EULESS, Texas — On many Sunday mornings Jose Merced watches police officers directing traffic into and from overflowing church parking lots and realizes his own religion doesn't evoke the same friendly treatment.

When police came to his home on a quiet cul-de-sac in this Fort Worth suburb last summer, it was to demand that Merced — an oba, or priest of the Santeria faith — call off a religious ceremony planned for the next day.

The reason: the city's ban on animal slaughter.

Merced explained that the ritual sacrifice of an animal is necessary to initiate a new priest into the Santeria faith, which has its origins in Cuba. He also offered a copy of a 1993 Supreme Court ruling allowing such sacrifices for religious reasons.

But Euless officials insisted that municipal sanitation ordinances prohibit the slaughter of animals inside city limits.

Such conflicts have become more common recently as the United States becomes a more religiously diverse society. Immigrants have also brought new religions with practices that fall outside the Judeo-Christian mainstream.

The Texas case highlights how laws in place in towns and cities across the U.S. sometimes clash with evolving cultural and religious customs.

Merced has sued the city, saying the slaughter ban encroaches on his right to perform religious ceremonies at his home.

"It's just ignorance... . They shut the door on me," Merced said.

In some places, authorities have worked to accommodate religious practices of new residents. Other times, participants have met with opposition, said Jeremy Gunn, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief. "Most political societies are very accommodating to the majority practice, but not to minority religions," Gunn said.

For example:

  • A Canadian Amish man married to an American citizen was barred from re-entering the U.S. in 2004 without photo identification. A federal court later rejected his argument that the requirement conflicted with the group's interpretation of a biblical prohibition against making graven images and violated his religious rights.
  • A Sikh college student in Michigan was arrested in 2005 for carrying a 10-inch knife, called a kirpan. Carrying a kirpan at all times is a basic tenet of the Sikh religion. Authorities later dropped the charge against Sukhpreet Singh Garcha.
  • A Hmong shaman was convicted of a felony in California after the clubbing of a puppy sacrificed to cure his ill wife. The charge against Chia Thai Moua was reduced in 1996 to a misdemeanor.

Euless spokeswoman Betsy Boyett says her city's slaughtering ban is intended to protect the health and safety of residents.

But believers say animal sacrifices are an essential devotion in Santeria, a religion born in Cuba by Yoruba slaves who fused elements of Roman Catholicism with beliefs they brought with them from Africa. Adherents later brought Santeria to the U.S. during the Cuban revolution.

Santerians believe in spiritual forces called Orishas, whose survival depends on blood sacrifices.

During the rite, an animal's carotid artery is severed, letting blood fall on a shrine. The animal is then prepared and eaten. Only those participating in the ceremony may be present.

Santeria practitioners say cities are going down a precarious path in trying to ban ritual sacrifice by claiming health and safety concerns.

The fight to perform animal sacrifices is important for Merced, whose Santeria congregation is called Templo Yoruba Omo Orisha. He eventually hopes to build a temple where believers can openly practice their beliefs.

Santeria believers in New York, California and Florida also have faced legal hurdles due to their ritual practices.

In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah, protecting the rights of Santeria practitioners to ritually slaughter animals. Now, Santeria leaders there are supporting Merced in his struggle.

"By targeting Jose Merced on the issue of animal slaughter means that the government deems it appropriate to regulate ... how one worships inside the privacy of a home," said Oba Ernesto Pichardo. "It's a dangerous claim toward religion as a whole, it's important for everyone to understand that."

The Euless anti-slaughter ordinance dates to 1974 and was not aimed at curtailing religious activities, said Boyett, pointing out that residents can legally slaughter chickens intended for the table.

But Miguel A. De La Torre, an ethics professor at Iliff School of Theology in Denver, says the city must adhere to the spirit of the Supreme Court decision.

"To deny an individual in Santeria from sacrificing an animal would be the same as the government making a law saying Christians are not able to practice communion, or that Jews cannot be circumcised," De La Torre said. "Why are you preventing this individual from worshipping?"

Federal judge upholds Texas city's animal-slaughter ban
Santeria priest had challenged Euless ordinance on grounds it violates his right to perform religious sacrifices in his home. 03.11.08


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