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Constitutional Law: ACS Blog
First Amendment May Be No Shield For Santeria Worshippers
Animal sacrifice for religious purposes may not be unconstitutional and may be protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean it’s a practice safe from laws aimed at preventing cruelty to animals. If the animal cruelty laws are not purposefully designed to suppress the religion known as Santeria or other religions where animal sacrifice is a ritual, then practitioners may still find themselves answerable to those laws.
For example, a situation noted on the Religion Clause Blog, Santeria worshippers are facing multiple charges over the improper treatment of animals in New York and New Jersey. Perez-Hernandez and his son Louis were charged with violating animal cruelty statutes because, according to a police investigation, the animals died from malnutrition. The two also face charges for unlawfully transporting more than 100 animals from a New Jersey farm without proper documents, the Lower Hudson Journal News reported. Authorities told the newspaper that the two were not being prosecuted because of their planned sacrifice of the animals in a religious ritual, but for violating Agriculture and Market laws that prohibit denying sustenance to the animals. In addition, the two were charged with subverting a town law against harboring farm animals in residential neighborhoods.
In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a number of animal cruelty and health safety ordinances in a Florida town on First Amendment grounds. Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said the laws were not neutral, but were instead aimed at suppressing the Santeria religion. The faith, originating in the 19th Century, “teaches that every individual has a destiny from God, a destiny fulfilled with the aid and energy of the orishas,” Kennedy wrote. A primary form, the high court noted, of nurturing a personal relationship with the orishas is to sacrifice animals, such as chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep and turtles.
Those Florida ordinances were invalidated, because the Court concluded they weren’t really aimed at protecting animals or addressing safety concerns, but were all about suppressing Santeria animal sacrifices. “We conclude, in sum, that each of Hialeah’s ordinances pursues the city’s governmental interests only against conduct motivated by religious belief,” Kennedy wrote for the majority in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. “The ordinances ‘have every appearance of a prohibition that society is prepared to impose upon [Santeria worshippers], but not upon itself.”
Whether the Santeria worshippers in New York are exempt because of the First Amendment from the multiple animal cruelty and health ordinances has yet to be addressed. The Westchester Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told the Journal News that religion was not the issue here. “Provide them [the animals] with the basics, even if you are to sacrifice them, is the proper way to do it,” Ken Ross, chief of the group’s law enforcement unit, said.
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