Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah

United States Supreme Court

508 U.S. 520, 113 S.Ct. 2217, 124 L.Ed. 2d. 472 (1993)

 

            In this case the Supreme Court considers a challenge to a set of Hialeah, Florida ordinances prohibiting animal sacrifice in religious rituals.  The ordinances were challenged in federal district court by the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, which practiced animal sacrifice in keeping with the Santeria religion. Unsuccessful in the lower courts, the Church obtained review in the Supreme Court.

 

Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the Court.

 

            ... 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. ...

 

            ... 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. ...

 

            ... 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. ...

 

            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. ...

 

            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 slaughterhouse 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 in state law.” All ordinances and resolutions passed the city council by unanimous vote. Violations of each of the four ordinances were punishable by fines not exceeding $500 or imprisonment not exceeding 60 days, or both. …

 

            ... 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. ... 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. ...

 

            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. ...

 

            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. ...

 

            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. ... 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. Apart from the text, the effect of a law in its real operation is strong evidence of its object. To be sure, adverse impact will not always lead to a finding of impermissible targeting. For example, a social harm may have been a legitimate concern of government for reasons quite apart from discrimination. ... The subject at hand does implicate, of course, multiple concerns unrelated to religious animosity, for example, the suffering or mistreatment visited upon the sacrificed animals, and health hazards from improper disposal. But the ordinances when considered together disclose an object remote from these legitimate concerns. The design of these laws accomplishes instead a “religious gerrymander,” ... an impermissible attempt to target petitioners and their religious practices.

 

            It is a necessary conclusion that almost the only conduct subject to [the] Ordinances ... is the religious exercise of Santeria church members. The tests show that they were drafted in tandem to achieve this result. ...

 

            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. The District Court accepted the argument that narrower regulation would be unenforceable because of the secrecy in the Santeria rituals. ... It is difficult to understand, however, how a prohibition of the sacrifices themselves, which occur in private, is enforceable if a ban on improper disposal, which occurs in public, is not. The neutrality of a law is suspect if First Amendment freedoms are curtailed to prevent isolated collateral harms not themselves prohibited by direct regulation. ...

 

            Under similar analysis, a narrow regulation would achieve the city’s interest in preventing cruelty to animals. ...

 

            Ordinance 87‑72—unlike the three other ordinances—does appear to apply to substantial nonreligious conduct and not to be overbroad. For our purposes here, however, the four substantive ordinances may be treated as a group for neutrality purposes. ...

 

            That the ordinances were enacted “ ‘because of,’ not merely ‘in spite of,’ ” their suppression of Santeria religious practice is revealed by the events preceding enactment of the ordinances. Although respondent claimed at oral argument that it had experienced significant problems resulting from the sacrifice of animals within the city before the announced opening of the Church, the city council made no attempt to address the supposed problem before its meeting in June 1987, just weeks after the Church announced plans to open. 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 prerevolutionary Cuba “people were put in jail for practicing this religion,” the audience applauded. …

 

            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. ...

 

            We turn next to a second requirement of the Free Exercise Clause, the rule that laws burdening religious practice must be of general applicability. ... 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.

 

            The principle that government, in pursuit of legitimate interests, cannot in a selective manner impose burdens only on conduct motivated by religious belief is essential to the protection of the rights guaranteed by the Free Exercise Clause. The principle underlying the general applicability requirement has parallels in our First Amendment jurisprudence. ... In this case we need not define with precision the standard used to evaluate whether a prohibition is of general application, for these ordinances fall well below the minimum standard necessary to protect First Amendment rights.

 

            Respondents claim that Ordinances 87‑40, 87‑52, and 87‑71 advance two interests: protecting the public health and preventing cruelty to animals. The ordinances are underinclusive for those ends. They fail to prohibit non‑religious conduct that endangers these interests in a similar or greater degree than Santeria sacrifice does. The underinclusion is substantial, not inconsequential. 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. ...

 

            We conclude ... 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 “ ‘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.

 

            First, even were the governmental interests compelling, the ordinances are not drawn in narrow terms to accomplish those interests. 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. It is established in our strict scrutiny jurisprudence that “a law cannot be regarded as protecting an interest ‘of the highest order’ ... when it leaves appreciable damage to that supposedly vital interest unprohibited.” ... 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. …

 

 

Justice Scalia, with whom the Chief Justice joins, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. ...

 

 

Justice Souter, concurring in part and concurring in the judgment. ...

 

 

Justice Blackmun, with whom Justice O’Connor joins, concurring in the judgment. ...

 

            The Court holds today that the city of Hialeah violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments when it passed a set of restrictive ordinances explicitly directed at petitioners’ religious practice. With this holding I agree. I write separately to emphasize that the First Amendment’s protection of religion extends beyond those rare occasions on which the government explicitly targets religion (or a particular religion) for disfavored treatment, as is done in this case. In my view, a statute that burdens the free exercise of religion “may stand only if the law is general, and the State’s refusal to allow a religious exemption in particular, are justified by a compelling interest that cannot be served by less restrictive means.” Employment Div., Oregon Dept. of Human Resources v. Smith ... (1990) (dissenting opinion). The Court, however, applies a different test. It applies the test announced in Smith, under which “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.” ... I continue to believe that Smith was wrongly decided, because it ignored the value of religious freedom as an affirmative individual liberty and treated the Free Exercise Clause as no more than an antidiscrimination principle. ... Thus, while I agree with the result the Court reaches in this case, I arrive at that result by a different route. ...