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Religion and Animal Sacrifice: Religion Is Not Above the Law

Stacy writes about tricky topics such as animal rights, veganism, and the death penalty.

Religious animal sacrifice

Religious animal sacrifice

Religious Freedom and Animal Sacrifice

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a First Amendment religious free exercise challenge brought by a Florida Santerían church in the case Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. The decision was made based on a motion that religious practitioners have a constitutional right to engage in animal sacrifice if it is central to their religion. This case was decided not on the merits of animal sacrifice but on the freedom to exercise practices central to one’s faith (Doheny, abstract).

Animal sacrifice, in its manner and embodiment, is inhumane. Laws in all 50 states are designed to protect animals from cruelty. This article will demonstrate that no religion is above the law and that the government need not acquiesce to certain religious practices that violate the law, namely inhumane animal sacrifice. Religious animal sacrifice may currently be protected by the First Amendment; however, this does not mean it is a practice safe from laws aimed at preventing animal cruelty, which is in opposition to moral and ethical decency in the U.S.

The First Amendment

The First Amendment of the United States Constitution prevents Congress from making any law respecting an establishment of religion, prohibiting the free exercise of religion, or abridging the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, or the right to petition for a governmental redress of grievances (Legal Information Institute). Laws may protect the free exercise of religion; however, religious practices are subject to governmental regulation in certain circumstances.

For example, nowhere in the Torah or in Talmudic law is there a requirement to torture and slaughter chickens to carry out the Jewish ritual of Kapparot, a custom in which the sins of a person are symbolically transferred to a fowl. The bird is held above the person’s head and swung in a circle three times; then, the bird is slaughtered and given as food to someone less fortunate (Jewish Virtual Library, para 2). Kapparot is not consistent with Jewish laws that oppose the mistreatment of animals, and only a small number of Orthodox Jews still carry out this awful practice.

Jewish laws have evolved, and as such, repentance and charity can be better accomplished using money instead of slaughtered fowl for the supposed transference of sins, which is what Santeríans claim they are doing when they sacrifice animals. Religious practices that are central to a faith but interfere with a legitimate state interest, endanger human safety, or violate cultural standards of decency should be re-examined, and the language modified to include, and therefore further protect, animals from ritual sacrifice, which in its manner is cruel and inhumane. Since animal cruelty is illegal in all 50 states, endangering animal safety is a criminal violation, a practice that should not be protected by religious freedom and should therefore be restricted by legal decree.


Laws exist to protect public safety, order, health and moral standards, and religious practices that impose on societal standards are subject to certain limitations not protected under the seemingly impenetrable umbrella of religious freedom.

Practitioners of Santería claim they have a constitutional right to practice animal sacrifice as it is central to their faith. Law enforcement and animal safety and control officers feel powerless in their authority to arrest Santeria practitioners who have slaughtered animals under the guise of religious freedom, even though sacrificial animal slaughter is cruel and inhumane, and animal cruelty is a criminal offense.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a First Amendment religious free exercise challenge brought by Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah based on the proposition that religious practitioners have a constitutional right to engage in animal sacrifice. However, the Supreme Court decision was not based on the merits of animal sacrifice alone but rather on a unique context where the Santeria faith was singled out, as some other religions employ similar methods when slaughtering animals.

The name Santería derives from the correspondences made by some devotees between the Yoruba deities called Orishas and the saints of Roman Catholic piety. Many contemporary practitioners refer to the tradition as “The religion of the Orishas” or the “Lukumi religion,” after the name by which the Yoruba were known in Cuba (Murphy 2008).

Santeria is a secretive religion, and it is difficult for a researcher to establish all the facts surrounding its practice of animal sacrifice. There is no dispute that sacrifice occurs, or that sacrifices are conducted to receive the assistance of the Orisha to whom the sacrifices are made (Doheny 33). But one thing is certain; animals are sacrificed while conscious, and the rituals contribute to agonizing suffering. Animals are kept in extremely unsanitary conditions, surrounded by excrement, without water or proper food, with some animals already dead or dying, as attested to in court by Miguel De La Torre, a former Santeria practitioner. De La Torre stated that a Santeria priest uses a knife and punctures the neck and carotid arteries. The animal’s blood is then drained into a clay pot placed under the head, and the animal is decapitated and removed from the area (Doheny), with carcasses often disposed of improperly and therefore illegally. While De La Torre’s testimony strengthened the case for the city of Hialeah on the grounds of animal cruelty, the Justices’ interpretation of the First Amendment brought on an opposing viewpoint and decision.

Policy-Making Process

Veterinary Neurophysiology Professor Craig Johnson of Massey University in New Zealand developed a way of lightly anesthetizing animals so that although they experienced no pain, the same electrical pain signals could be reliably detected, showing they would have suffered pain if awake. This research shows that pain originates from cutting throat nerves, not from the loss of blood, suggesting the severed nerves send pain signals until the time of death which can take several minutes (Coghlan p. 77). This substantiates that ritual animal sacrifice is inhumane, deeming it animal cruelty.

Laws not targeting one specific religion that are unbiased are what the Supreme Court should use to ban animal sacrifice, as religions should not be exempt from anti-cruelty laws. Just as Mormons cannot practice polygamy and Rastafarians cannot legally smoke or consume marijuana, other faiths that claim certain practices are central to their faith, like Santeria, should not be allowed to carry out practices that break the law, in this case, animal cruelty laws, or threatening public safety or violating moral standards.

The Florida District Court found that the method of sacrifice described by Ernesto Picardo, head priest of the Church of Lukumi Babalu was indeed inhumane. The court found the Santería practice of severing the arteries lacked reliability, and great pain is caused to the animal if the blood vessels are missed, and the court found the sacrifices were likely to cause animal suffering (Doheny A.2 para 5). Relying on the expert testimony of Dr. Michael Fox, veterinarian and former Vice President of the Humane Society of the United States, Dr. Fox testified that under the method described, the animal was not likely to be unconscious instantaneously, and would experience pain because arteries are in places that the blade would not reach under this method. This expert testimony established that this method of killing is not humane because there is no guarantee that a person performing a sacrifice in the manner described can cut through both carotid arteries at the same time. Additionally, some of the linings of the artery can recoil and close the artery to prevent the instant hemorrhaging, in a tourniquet effect. Dr. Fox concluded that the method used by the priest is not a reliable or painless method of severing both carotid arteries, and testified that with young goats or sheep, there are deeper arteries within the vertebrae so that these animals would not likely be unconscious instantaneously. Only a complete neck severance can make it clear that the arteries have all been severed and a stabbing or poking is not accepted from either a traditional standpoint or a humane standpoint (Leagle para 6,7).

The court also found that animals were illegally transported across state lines and kept in botanicas where Santería religious items are sold, not suitable for, or zoned to house animals. Animals were found to have been confined with other species, without food or water, causing further distress. Additionally, the court had further concerns regarding how the animal carcasses were disposed of afterward, citing fear of public health endangerment.

Political Challenges

The City Council of Hialeah met on June 9, 1987, adopting Resolution 87-66, which noted that the residents of the city were concerned "that certain religious groups may propose to engage in practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, and safety." The city then "reiterated its commitment" to prevent such practices. Within this chapter is Florida's animal cruelty statute, § 828.12, which states it is a misdemeanor to "unnecessarily" kill any animal.

An opinion was issued, which assured the city that the state misdemeanor anti-cruelty statute "prohibits the sacrificial killing of animals other than for the primary purpose of food consumption." Thus, according to the opinion, municipal ordinances prohibiting Santería animal sacrifice were permissible under state law (Doheny 2006, para 2).

The church responded by filing a claim in federal district court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The church challenged all four ordinances by asserting they were in violation of the First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. The district court held that the ordinances were not in violation of the Constitution’s Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. The court found the city had asserted compelling interests to justify the ordinances: preventing animal cruelty and protecting the public health. The district court concluded the ordinances’ effect of prohibiting animal sacrifice was not aimed specifically at the practices of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye or Santería (Doheny, para. 4).

State and local animal cruelty statutes may function to prohibit animal sacrifice in some circumstances. In Lukumi, the Supreme Court found that Ordinance 87-52, incorporating Florida's animal cruelty statute, lacked general applicability because it construed animal sacrifice to be an “unnecessary” killing while permitting many secular killings (Doheny, 2006, para. 3). “Secular killing” refers to non-religious animal slaughter for consumption, a definition reserved for hunters, most of whom claim to “eat their kill.” This is where the language of these laws must be re-examined. Animal cruelty laws designed to protect animals from inhumane treatment must apply to secular and religious entities where states can mandate that religious sacrifices are conducted in a humane manner, though many argue there is no humane way to slaughter an animal.

Each state has sanctioned animal cruelty legislation, with varying degrees of penalties and punishment, but all states recognize that cruelty to animals is morally and ethically wrong, and such laws aimed at preventing animal cruelty provide solutions for preventing animal sacrifice. Though states cannot prohibit religious animal sacrifices under the current Supreme Court ruling, they can mandate that the practice occurs in a humane manner, where practitioners of ritual animal sacrifice will be criminally prosecuted if the sacrifices are not carried out “humanely.”

Animals are still considered property and, as such, are deprived of certain legal protections. The legal status of animals as property adversely affects the ability to impose certain constraints. There is a dichotomy between the desire to protect animals and the failure to provide legal protection sufficient to prevent sacrificial slaughter, which causes horrific suffering. Therefore, it is incumbent upon citizens to call for the evolution of legislation that recognizes that, like all sentient beings, animals are entitled to basic legal rights in our society and that religious practices that harm animals not be permissible under the guise of religious freedom since religion is not above the law.

There are also those who feel religion has far too many protections and exemptions. Though the First Amendment protects one’s right to worship and maintain religious beliefs, a growing number of citizens see religion as nothing more than a hobby, not deserving of a plethora of protections, tax-exemption status, and the influence it wields. Since religion is a choice and not government-mandated, many individuals want freedom from religion and its many impositions, and they do not want to foot the tax burden while religious institutions prosper.

The Court’s decision in Lukumi has been criticized for not protecting animals by recognizing that governments have a duty to restrict or ban religious practices that interfere with a legitimate state interest, endanger human safety, or violate moral, ethical, or cultural standards. Laws can constitutionally prevent and burden animal sacrifice, as courts are often called upon to enforce the popular morality of society.

Citizens must speak up on behalf of animals to include the safety and protection of human and non-human animals alike. Until laws that serve to better protect animals are enacted, citizens and municipalities seeking to prevent animal sacrifice can rely on municipal zoning, licensing laws, and animal cruelty laws. Though these are not likely to prevent religious practitioners from sacrificing animals in the current manner, legislation can be passed and enforced to prevent inhumane animal sacrifice if the laws are unbiased and applicable to all religions.

Works Cited

American Constitution Society for Law and Policy. First Amendment May Be No Shield For

Santeria Worshippers. 2008, August 28. Retrieved Marcy 30, 2018 from

Buttersworth, Robert. Florida Attorney General. Advisory Legal Opinion: Number: AGO 87-56.

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Coghlan, A. 2009, October 13. Animals Feel the Pain of Religious Slaughter. New Scientist.

Journal Reference New Zealand Veterinary Journal, vol 57, p 77. Accessed April 3, 2018

from Cornell Law School.

Doheny, S. 2006. Free Exercise Does Not Protect Animal Sacrifice: Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah and Constitutional Solutions for Stopping Animal Sacrifice. Michigan State University College of Law. Primary Citation: Journal of Animal Law 121.

Greenhouse, L. 1993, June 12. THE SUPREME COURT: Animal Sacrifice; Court, Citing

Religious Freedom, Voids a Ban on Animal Sacrifices. Accessed March 13, 2018, from religious-freedom-voids-ban-animal.html

Heiser, S. 2010, January 5. Animal Abuse Under the Guise of Religious Freedom. Animal

Legal Defense Fund. Retrieved March 25, 21018 from abuse- under-the-guise-of-religious-freedom/

Jewish Virtual Library. Kapparot. Accessed April 16, 2018, from

Leagle. 1989 723 F.Supp. 1467. Church of Lukumi Babaly Aye v. City of Hialeah. No. 87-1795

CIV-EPS. Accessed April 16, 2018, from

Legal Information Institute. Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City

of Hialeah (No. 91-948). Retrieved April 1, 2018, from

Murphy, J. 2008, July 18. Santeria. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 3, 2018, from