Santeria v. City of Hialeah, FL

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo v. City of Hialeah
No. 91-948
508 U.S. 520 (1993)
June 11, 1993 

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court, except as to Part II-A-2.

The principle that government may not enact laws that suppress religious belief or practice is so well understood that few violations are recorded in our opinions. Concerned that this fundamental nonpersecution principle of the First Amendment was implicated here, however, we granted certiorari. Our review confirms that the laws in question were enacted by officials who did not understand, failed to perceive, or chose to ignore the fact that their official actions violated the Nation’s essential commitment to religious freedom. The challenged laws had an impermissible object; and in all events the principle of general applicability was violated because the secular ends asserted in defense of the laws were pursued only with respect  to conduct motivated by religious beliefs. We invalidate the challenged enactments and reverse the judgment of the Court of Appeals.

A. This case involves practices of the Santeria religion, which originated in the nineteenth century. When hundreds of thousands of members of the Yoruba people were brought as slaves from eastern Africa to Cuba, their traditional African religion absorbed significant elements of Roman Catholicism. The resulting syncretion, or fusion, is Santeria, “the way of the saints.” The Cuban Yoruba express their devotion to spirits, called orishas, through the iconography of Catholic saints, Catholic symbols are often present at Santeria rites, and Santeria devotees attend the Catholic sacraments. The Santeria faith teaches that every individual has a destiny from God, a destiny fulfilled with the aid and energy of the orishas. The basis of the Santeria religion is the nurture of a personal relation with the orishas, and one of the principal forms of devotion is an animal sacrifice.

The sacrifice of animals as part of religious rituals has ancient roots. Animal sacrifice is mentioned throughout the Old Testament, and it played an important role in the practice of Judaism before destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem. In modern Islam, there is an annual sacrifice commemorating Abraham’s sacrifice of a ram in the stead of his son. According to Santeria teaching, the orishas are powerful but not immortal. They depend for survival on the sacrifice. Sacrifices are performed at birth, marriage, and death rites, for the cure of the sick, for the initiation of new members and priests, and during an annual celebration. Animals sacrificed in Santeria rituals include chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, and turtles. The animals are killed by the cutting of the carotid arteries in the neck.  The sacrificed animal is cooked and eaten, except after healing and death rituals.

Santeria adherents faced widespread persecution in Cuba, so the religion and its rituals were practiced in secret.  The open practice of Santeria and its rites remains infrequent. The religion was brought to this Nation most often by exiles from the Cuban revolution.  The District Court estimated that there are at least 50,000 practitioners in South Florida today.

B. Petitioner Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. (Church), is a not-for-profit corporation organized under Florida law in 1973.  The Church and its congregants practice the Santeria religion. The president of the Church is petitioner Ernesto Pichardo, who is also the Church’s priest and holds the religious title of Italero, the second highest in the Santeria faith. In April 1987, the Church leased land in the city of Hialeah, Florida, and announced plans to establish a house of worship as well as a school, cultural center, and museum.  Pichardo indicated that the Church’s goal was to bring the practice of the Santeria faith, including its ritual of animal sacrifice, into the open.  The Church began the process of obtaining utility service and receiving the necessary licensing, inspection, and zoning approvals.  Although the Church’s efforts at obtaining the necessary licenses and permits were far from smooth, it appears that it received all needed approvals by early August 1987.

The prospect of a Santeria church in their midst was distressing to many members of the Hialeah community, and the announcement of the plans to open a Santeria church in Hialeah prompted the city council to hold an emergency public session on June 9, 1987.  The resolutions and ordinances passed at that and later meetings are set forth in the appendix following this opinion.  A summary suffices here, beginning with the enactments passed at the June 9 meeting.  First, the city council adopted Resolution 87-66, which noted the “concern” expressed by residents of the city “that certain religions may propose to engage in practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety,” and declared that “[t]he City reiterates its commitment to a prohibition against any and all acts of any and all religious groups which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety.”  Next, the council approved an emergency ordinance that incorporated in full, except as to penalty, Florida’s animal cruelty laws. Among other things, the incorporated state law [Fla.Stat. 828.12] subjected to criminal punishment “[w]hoever . . . unnecessarily or cruelly . . . kills any animal.” The city council desired to undertake further legislative action, but Florida law prohibited a municipality from enacting legislation relating to animal cruelty that conflicted with state law. To obtain clarification, Hialeah’s city attorney requested an opinion from the attorney general of Florida as to whether 828.12 prohibited “a religious group from sacrificing an animal in a religious ritual or practice” and whether the city could enact ordinances “making religious animal sacrifice unlawful.”  The attorney general responded in mid-July.  He concluded that the “ritual sacrifice of animals for purposes other than food consumption” was not a “necessary” killing and so was prohibited by 828.12. The attorney general appeared to define “unnecessary” as “done without any useful motive, in a spirit of wanton cruelty or for the mere pleasure of destruction without being in any sense beneficial or useful to the person killing the animal.” He advised that religious animal sacrifice was against state law, so that a city ordinance prohibiting it would not be in conflict.

The city council responded at first with a hortatory enactment, Resolution 87-90, that noted its residents’ “great concern regarding the possibility of public ritualistic animal sacrifices” and the state law prohibition.  The resolution declared the city policy “to oppose the ritual sacrifices of animals” within Hialeah and announced that any person or organization practicing animal sacrifice “will be prosecuted.”   In September 1987, the city council adopted three substantive ordinances addressing the issue of religious animal sacrifice.  Ordinance 87-52 defined “sacrifice” as “to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption,” and prohibited owning or possessing an animal “intending to use such animal for food purposes.”  It restricted application of this prohibition, however, to any individual or group that “kills, slaughters or sacrifices animals for any type of ritual, regardless of whether or not the flesh or blood of the animal is to be consumed.”  The ordinance contained an exemption for slaughtering by “licensed establishment[s]” of animals “specifically raised for food purposes.”  Declaring, moreover, that the city council “has determined that the sacrificing of animals within the city limits is contrary to the public health, safety, welfare and morals of the community,” the city council adopted Ordinance 87-71.  That ordinance defined sacrifice as had Ordinance 87-52, and then provided that “[i]t shall be unlawful for any person, persons, corporations or associations to sacrifice any animal within the corporate limits of the City of Hialeah, Florida.” The final Ordinance, 87-72, defined “slaughter” as “the killing of animals for food” and prohibited slaughter outside of areas zoned for slaughter-house use. The ordinance provided an exemption, however, for the slaughter or processing for sale of “small numbers of hogs and/or cattle per week in accordance with an exemption provided by state law.” All ordinances and resolutions passed the city council by unanimous vote.

Following enactment of these ordinances, the Church and Pichardo filed this action pursuant to 42 U. S. C. 1983 in the United States District Court for the Southern District of Florida. Named as defendants were the city of Hialeah and its mayor and members of its city council in their individual capacities. Alleging violations of petitioners’ rights under, inter alia, the Free Exercise Clause, the complaint sought a declaratory judgment and injunctive and monetary relief… After a 9-day bench trial…the District Court ruled for the city, finding no violation of petitioners’ rights under the Free Exercise Clause… The court found four compelling interests.  First, the court found that animal sacrifices present a substantial health risk, both to participants and the general public.  According to the court, animals that are to be sacrificed are often kept in unsanitary conditions and are uninspected, and animal remains are found in public places. Second, the court found emotional injury to children who witness the sacrifice of animals. Third, the court found compelling the city’s interest in protecting animals from cruel and unnecessary killing.  The court determined that the method of killing used in Santeria sacrifice was “unreliable and not humane, and that the animals, before being sacrificed, are often kept in conditions that produce a great deal of fear and stress in the animal.” Fourth, the District Court found compelling the city’s interest in restricting the slaughter or sacrifice of animals to areas zoned for slaughterhouse use. This legal determination was not accompanied by factual findings.  Balancing the competing governmental and religious interests, the District Court concluded the compelling governmental interests “fully justify the absolute prohibition on ritual sacrifice” accomplished by the ordinances…

The city does not argue that Santeria is not a “religion” within the meaning of the First Amendment.  Nor could it.  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.” Given the historical association between animal sacrifice and religious worship, petitioners’ assertion that animal sacrifice is an integral part of their religion “cannot be deemed bizarre or incredible.” Neither the city nor the courts below, moreover, have questioned the sincerity of petitioners’ professed desire to conduct animal sacrifices for religious reasons.  We must consider petitioners’ First Amendment claim.

In addressing the constitutional protection for free exercise of religion, our cases establish the general proposition that a law that is neutral and of general applicability need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest even if the law has the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice.  [Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith] Neutrality and general applicability are interrelated, and, as becomes apparent in this case, failure to satisfy one requirement is a likely indication that the other has not been satisfied.  A law failing to satisfy these requirements must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest.  These ordinances fail to satisfy the Smith requirements. . . .

A.   In our Establishment Clause cases we have often stated the principle that the First Amendment forbids an official purpose to disapprove of a particular religion or of religion in general. These cases, however, for the most part have addressed governmental efforts to benefit religion or particular religions, and so have dealt with a question different, at least in its formulation and emphasis, from the issue here.  Petitioners allege an attempt to disfavor their religion because of the religious ceremonies it commands, and the Free Exercise Clause is dispositive in our analysis. At a minimum, the protections of the Free Exercise Clause pertain if the law at issue discriminates against some or all religious beliefs or regulates or prohibits conduct because it is undertaken for religious reasons. Indeed, it was “historical instances of religious persecution and intolerance that gave concern to those who drafted the Free Exercise Clause.”  These principles, though not often at issue in our Free Exercise Clause cases, have played a role in some.  In McDaniel v. Paty (1978), for example, we invalidated a State law that disqualified members of the clergy from holding certain public offices, because it “impose[d] special disabilities on the basis of . . . religious status,”

1.   Although a law targeting religious beliefs as such is never permissible, if the object of a law is to infringe upon or restrict practices because of their religious motivation, the law is not neutral, and it is invalid unless it is justified by a compelling interest and is narrowly tailored to advance that interest.  There are, of course, many ways of demonstrating that the object or purpose of a law is the suppression of religion or religious conduct.  To determine the object of a law, we must begin with its text, for the minimum requirement of neutrality is that a law not discriminate on its face.  A law lacks facial neutrality if it refers to a religious practice without a secular meaning discernable from the language or context.  Petitioners contend that three of the ordinances fail this test of facial neutrality because they use the words “sacrifice” and “ritual,” words with strong religious connotations.

We agree that these words are consistent with the claim of facial dis- crimination, but the argument is not conclusive.  The words “sacrifice” and “ritual” have a religious origin, but current use admits also of secular meanings.  The ordinances, furthermore, define “sacrifice” in secular terms, without referring to religious practices.   We reject the contention advanced by the city, that our inquiry must end with the text of the laws at issue.  Facial neutrality is not determinative. The Free Exercise Clause, like the Establishment Clause, extends beyond facial discrimination.  The Clause “forbids subtle departures from neutrality,”and “covert suppression of particular religious beliefs.” 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.  The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship service was the object of the ordinances.  First, though use of the words “sacrifice” and “ritual” does not compel a finding of improper targeting of the Santeria religion, the choice of these words is support for our conclusion.

There are further respects in which the text of the city council’s enactments discloses the improper attempt to target Santeria.  Resolution 87-66, adopted June 9, 1987, recited that “residents and citizens of the City of Hialeah have expressed their concern that certain religions may propose to engage in practices which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety,” and “reiterate[d]” the city’s commitment to prohibit “any and all [such] acts of any and all religious groups.”  No one suggests, and on this record it cannot be maintained, that city officials had in mind a religion other than Santeria.   It becomes evident that these ordinances target Santeria sacrifice when the ordinances’ operation is considered. . . . It is a necessary conclusion that almost the only conduct subject to Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71 is the religious exercise of Santeria church members.  The texts show that they were drafted in tandem to achieve this result.

We begin with Ordinance 87-71.  It prohibits the sacrifice of animals but defines sacrifice as “to unnecessarily kill . . . an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption.”  The definition excludes almost all killings of animals except for religious sacrifice, and the primary purpose requirement narrows the proscribed category even further, in particular by exempting Kosher slaughter.   We need not discuss whether this differential treatment of two religions is itself an independent constitutional violation. It suffices to recite this feature of the law as support for our conclusion that Santeria alone was the exclusive legislative concern.  The net result of the gerrymander is that few if any killings of animals are prohibited other than Santeria sacrifice, which is proscribed because it occurs during a ritual or ceremony and its primary purpose is to make an offering to the orishas, not food consumption.  Indeed, careful drafting ensured that, although Santeria sacrifice is prohibited, killings that are no more necessary or humane in almost all other circumstances are unpunished.

Operating in similar fashion is Ordinance 87-52, which prohibits the “possess[ion], sacrifice, or slaughter” of an animal with the “inten[t] to use such animal for food purposes.”  This prohibition, extending to the keeping of an animal as well as the killing itself, applies if the animal is killed in “any type of ritual” and there is an intent to use the animal for food, whether or not it is in fact consumed for food.  The ordinance exempts, however, “any licensed [food] establishment” with regard to “any animals which are specifically raised for food purposes,” if the activity is permitted by zoning and other laws.  This exception, too, seems intended to cover Kosher slaughter.  Again, the burden of the ordinance, in practical terms, falls on Santeria adherents but almost no others. If the killing is “unlike most Santeria sacrifices” unaccompanied by the intent to use the animal for food, then it is not prohibited by Ordinance 87-52; if the killing is specifically for food but does not occur during the course of “any type of ritual,” it again falls outside the prohibition; and if the killing is for food and occurs during the course of a ritual, it is still exempted if it occurs in a properly zoned and licensed establishment and involves animals “specifically raised for food purposes.”  A pattern of exemptions parallels the pattern of narrow prohibitions.  Each contributes to the gerrymander.

Ordinance 87-40 incorporates the Florida animal cruelty statute. Its prohibition is broad on its face, punishing “[w]hoever . . . unnecessarily . . . kills any animal.”  The city claims that this ordinance is the epitome of a neutral prohibition. The problem, however, is the interpretation given to the ordinance by respondent and the Florida attorney general.  Killings for religious reasons are deemed unnecessary, whereas most other killings fall outside the prohibition.  The city, on what seems to be a per se basis, deems hunting, slaughter of animals for food, eradication of insects and pests, and euthanasia as necessary. There is no indication in the record that respondent has concluded that hunting or fishing for sport is unnecessary.  Indeed, one of the few reported Florida cases decided under 828.12 concludes that the use of live rabbits to train greyhounds is not unnecessary.

We also find significant evidence of the ordinances’ improper targeting of Santeria sacrifice in the fact that they proscribe more religious conduct than is necessary to achieve their stated ends. . . .The legitimate governmental interests in protecting the public health and preventing cruelty to animals could be addressed by restrictions stopping far short of a flat prohibition of all Santeria sacrificial practice.  If improper disposal, not the sacrifice itself, is the harm to be prevented, the city could have imposed a general regulation on the disposal of organic garbage.  It did not do so.  Indeed, counsel for the city conceded at oral argument that, under the ordinances, Santeria sacrifices would be illegal even if they occurred in licensed, inspected, and zoned slaughterhouses. Thus, these broad ordinances prohibit Santeria sacrifice even when it does not threaten the city’s interest in the public health. . . . Under similar analysis, narrower regulation would achieve the city’s interest in preventing cruelty to animals.  With regard to the city’s interest in ensuring the adequate care of animals, regulation of conditions and treatment, regardless of why an animal is kept, is the logical response to the city’s concern, not a prohibition on possession for the purpose of sacrifice.  The same is true for the city’s interest in prohibiting cruel methods of killing.  Under federal and Florida law and Ordinance 87-40, which incorporates Florida law in this regard, killing an animal by the “simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument—the method used in Kosher slaughter” is approved as humane. The District Court found that, though Santeria sacrifice also results in severance of the carotid arteries, the method used during sacrifice is less reliable and therefore not humane. If the city has a real concern that other methods are less humane, however, the subject of the regulation should be the method of slaughter itself, not a religious classification that is said to bear some general relation to it. . . .

2.  In determining if the object of a law is a neutral one under the Free Exercise Clause, we can also find guidance in our equal protection cases. . . . Here, as in equal protection cases, we may determine the city council’s object from both direct and circumstantial evidence. . . . Relevant evidence includes, among other things, the historical background of the decision under challenge, the specific series of events leading to the enactment or official policy in question, as well as the legislative or administrative history, including contemporaneous statements made by members of the decisionmaking body. . . . The minutes and taped excerpts of the June 9 session, both of which are in the record, evidence significant hostility exhibited by residents, members of the city council, and other city officials toward the Santeria religion and its practice of animal sacrifice.  The public crowd that attended the June 9 meetings interrupted statements by council members critical of Santeria with cheers and the brief comments of Pichardo with taunts.  When Councilman Martinez, a supporter of the ordinances, stated that in prerevolution Cuba “people were put in jail for practicing this religion,” the audience applauded.  Other statements by members of the city council were in a similar vein.  For example, Councilman Martinez, after noting his belief that Santeria was outlawed in Cuba, questioned, “if we could not practice this [religion] in our homeland [Cuba], why bring it to this country?”  Councilman Cardoso said that Santeria devotees at the Church “are in violation of everything this country stands for.”  Councilman Mejides indicated that he was “totally against the sacrificing of animals” and distinguished Kosher slaughter because it had a “real purpose.”  The “Bible says we are allowed to sacrifice an animal for consumption,” he continued, “but for any other purposes, I don’t believe that the Bible allows that.”  The president of the city council, Councilman Echevarria, asked, “What can we do to prevent the Church from opening?”  Various Hialeah city officials made comparable comments.  The chaplain of the Hialeah Police Department told the city council that Santeria was a sin, “foolishness,- -an abomination to the Lord,” and the worship of “demons.” He advised the city council that “We need to be helping people and sharing with them the truth that is found in Jesus Christ.”  He concluded: “I would exhort you…not to permit this Church to exist.”  The city attorney commented that Resolution 87-66 indicated that “This community will not tolerate religious practices which are abhorrent to its citizens…”  Similar comments were made by the deputy city attorney.  This history discloses the object of the ordinances to target animal sacrifice by Santeria worshippers because of its religious motivation.

3   In sum, the neutrality inquiry leads to one conclusion: The ordinances had as their object the suppression of religion.  The pattern we have recited discloses animosity to Santeria adherents and their religious practices; the ordinances by their own terms target this religious exercise; the texts of the ordinances were gerrymandered with care to proscribe religious killings of animals but to exclude almost all secular killings; and the ordinances suppress much more religious conduct than is necessary in order to achieve the legitimate ends asserted in their defense.  These ordinances are not neutral, and the court below committed clear error in failing to reach this conclusion.

B   We turn next to a second requirement of the Free Exercise Clause, the rule that laws burdening religious practice must be of general applicability.  Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U. S., at 879-881.  All laws are selective to some extent, but categories of selection are of paramount concern when a law has the incidental effect of burdening religious practice.  The Free Exercise Clause “protect[s] religious observers against unequal treatment,” and inequality results when a legislature decides that the governmental interests it seeks to advance are worthy of being pursued only against conduct with a religious motivation. . . . Despite the city’s proffered interest in preventing cruelty to animals, the ordinances are drafted with care to forbid few killings but those occasioned by religious sacrifice.  Many types of animal deaths or kills for nonreligious reasons are either not prohibited or approved by express provision. . . . Florida law incorporated by Ordinance 87-40 sanctions euthanasia of “stray, neglected, abandoned, or unwanted animals,” destruction of animals judicially removed from their owners “for humanitarian reasons” or when the animal “is of no commercial value,” the infliction of pain or suffering “in the interest of medical science,” the placing of poison in one’s yard or enclosure,  and the use of a live animal “to pursue or take wildlife or to participate in any hunting,” and “to hunt wild hogs.”  The city concedes that “neither the State of Florida nor the City has enacted a generally applicable ban on the killing of animals.”  It asserts, however, that animal sacrifice is “different” from the animal killings that are permitted by law.  According to the city, it is “self-evident” that killing animals for food is “important”; the eradication of insects and pests is “obviously justified”; and the euthanasia of excess animals “makes sense.” These ipse dixits do not explain why religion alone must bear the burden of the ordinances, when many of these secular killings fall within the city’s interest in preventing the cruel treatment of animals.

The ordinances are also underinclusive with regard to the city’s interest in public health, which is threatened by the disposal of animal carcasses in open public places and the consumption of uninspected meat.  Neither interest is pursued by respondent with regard to conduct that is not motivated by religious conviction.  The health risks posed by the improper disposal of animal carcasses are the same whether Santeria sacrifice or some nonreligious killing preceded it.  The city does not, however, prohibit hunters from bringing their kill to their houses, nor does it regulate disposal after their activity.  Despite substantial testimony at trial that the same public health hazards result from improper disposal of garbage by restaurants,  restaurants are outside the scope of the ordinances.  Improper disposal is a general problem that causes substantial health risks,  but which respondent addresses only when it results from religious exercise.

The ordinances are underinclusive as well with regard to the health risk posed by consumption of uninspected meat.  Under the city’s ordinances, hunters may eat their kill and fisherman may eat their catch without undergoing governmental inspection.  Likewise, state law requires inspection of meat that is sold but exempts meat from animals raised for the use of the owner and “members of his household and nonpaying guests and employees.” The asserted interest in inspected meat is not pursued in contexts similar to that of religious animal sacrifice. . . .

We conclude, in sum, that each of Hialeah’s ordinances pursues the city’s governmental interests only against conduct motivated by religious belief.  The ordinances “ha[ve] every appearance of a prohibition that society is prepared to impose upon [Santeria worshippers] but not upon itself.” This precise evil is what the requirement of general applicability is designed to prevent.

A law burdening religious practice that is not neutral or not of general application must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny.  To satisfy the commands of the First Amendment, a law restrictive of religious practice must advance “interests of the highest order” and must be narrowly tailored in pursuit of those interests. . . . A law that targets religious conduct for distinctive treatment or advances legitimate governmental interests only against conduct with a religious motivation will survive strict scrutiny only in rare cases.  It follows from what we have already said that these ordinances cannot withstand this scrutiny. As we have discussed, all four ordinances are overbroad or underinclusive in substantial respects.  The proffered objectives are not pursued with respect to analogous non-religious conduct, and those interests could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree.  The absence of narrow tailoring suffices to establish the invalidity of the ordinances. Respondent has not demonstrated, moreover, that, in the context of these ordinances, its governmental interests are compelling. Where government restricts only conduct protected by the First Amendment and fails to enact feasible measures to restrict other conduct producing substantial harm or alleged harm of the same sort, the interest given in justification of the restriction is not compelling… As we show above, the ordinances are underinclusive to a substantial extent with respect to each of the interests that respondent has asserted, and it is only conduct motivated by religious conviction that bears the weight of the governmental restrictions.  There can be no serious claim that those interests justify the ordinances.

The Free Exercise Clause commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of its practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures.  Those in office must be resolute in resisting importunate demands and must ensure that the sole reasons for imposing the burdens of law and regulation are secular. Legislators may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices. The laws here in question were enacted contrary to these constitutional principles, and they are void.


[Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. and Ernesto Pichardo v. City of HialeahNo. 91-948. 508 U.S. 520 (1993). June 11, 1993. Legal Information Institute, Cornell University Law School.]