The city of Hialeah, Fla., passed an ordinance forbidding the “unnecessary(y) kill(ing)” of “an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption.” The ordinance followed the announcement of plans to open a Santeria church in Hialeah—the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye. Santeria worship involves the practice of religious animal sacrifice. The city argued that the ordinances furthered its interest in public health and preventing animal cruelty. The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye sued, seeking to have the ordinance declared unconstitutional under the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court held that the law violated the Free Exercise Clause. The Court looked critically at the facts and found the city’s articulated justifications for its actions implausible. The minutes of the City Council meetings prior to the passage of the ordinance made plain that residents, members of the City Council, and other city officials were hostile to the Santeria religion and its practice of animal sacrifice. The Court also noted that the city had “fail(ed) to enact feasible measures to restrict other conduct producing substantial harm or alleged harm of the same sort.” Looking beyond the “facial neutrality” of the statute, the Court concluded that the ordinances were not intended to protect health or safety but were instead “designed to persecute or oppress” practitioners of Santeria. Because the Free Exercise Clause “commits government itself to religious tolerance,” the Court held that the ordinances violated that guarantee.