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5th Circuit: City violated Santeria priest's religious rights

By The Associated Press

DALLAS — A federal appeals court has reversed a judge's ruling that barred a Santeria priest from sacrificing goats in his Texas home, saying a city's decision to prohibit the ritual violated the man's religious rights.

Jose Merced, 46, accuses the city of Euless, Texas, of trampling on his constitutional right to religious freedom. The city claims the sacrifices jeopardize public health and violate its slaughterhouse and animal-cruelty ordinances.

Last year, U.S. District Judge John McBryde sided with the Fort Worth suburb and dismissed the Puerto Rico native's claims. Merced appealed.

In its July 31 ruling in Merced v. Kasson, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the Euless ordinance placed a substantial burden on Merced's "free exercise of religion without advancing a compelling governmental interest using the least restrictive means."

"It's a great day for religious freedom in Texas," said Eric Rassbach, Merced's lawyer, in response to the unanimous three-judge panel's ruling.

Merced said he didn't harm anyone by practicing his faith in the privacy of his own home.

"Now Santeros can practice their religion at home without being afraid of being fined, arrested or taken to court," Merced said.

William McKamie, Euless city attorney, said he planned to file a motion for a rehearing.

"We respectfully believe that it's an incorrect finding on the purpose of application of the Texas Religious Freedom Act," McKamie said.

In court papers, Rassbach described Santeria as an Afro-Cuban religion with a complex ritual for ordaining priests, including the sacrifice of up to nine four-legged animals, such as lambs or goats, up to 20 chickens or other fowl and a turtle.

Merced said police officers interrupted a ceremony at his home in September 2004 and told him to stop slaughtering animals. Police warned him again in May 2006 after a neighbor complained about a gathering at the house.

Merced asked the city for a permit to slaughter animals at his home but was told the practice was prohibited. He says he hasn't been able to initiate any new priests in the past three years.

Euless attorneys have said the ordinances outlawing animal sacrifices were passed before Merced's arrival in 1990 and don't discriminate against any individual or group. McKamie also says Merced isn't equipped to handle many animals on his property or dispose of them in a sanitary way.

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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