Killing Animals for Religion or Food

It's rare, but sometimes religious practices run up against animal welfare laws.

Our society lives easily with the large-scale slaughter of animals—after all, it's hard to go far in a typical town without passing a McDonald's. But people become squeamish when the killing is done by people with less mainstream methods and customs.

Some residents of Hialeah, Florida, developed a sudden concern about cruelty to animals when they got wind that a Santeria church planned to open in their town. The Santeria religion, a conflation of Catholicism and African religion, was developed in the 19th century by people from eastern Africa who were taken to Cuba and enslaved. Animal sacrifice is central to the practice of Santeria. Animals, including chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea pigs, goats, sheep, and turtles, are killed by cutting their carotid arteries. The animals are then cooked and eaten.

The Hialeah city council, at an emergency public session, passed several ordinances aimed at stopping church members' ritual sacrifice of animals. Among other things, the laws defined sacrifice as an "unnecessary killing," which made it fall under the state's anti-cruelty law. The laws exempted slaughtering animals "specifically raised for food purposes." Violators of the ordinances could be fined and put in jail for up to 60 days.

Freedom of religion is, of course, guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. But when church members took the city to court, a federal trial court upheld the ordinances, ruling that the city had shown "compelling interests" that justified the restriction on religion. The United States Supreme Court reversed and threw out the ordinances. It was obvious, the court concluded, that suppressing Santeria worship—not promoting health and safety—was the prime object of the ordinances. Further, it ruled, the reasons the city gave to justify the burden on religion were not compelling, and even if they were, the ordinances could be tailored much more narrowly and still address these alleged concerns. (Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 52  (1993).)

Anti-cruelty laws have also been invoked against immigrants whose customs offend their neighbors. For example, two Cambodian refugees were charged with violating California's anti-cruelty law because they killed a six-month-old puppy for food. A judge dismissed the charges, ruling that to do otherwise "would subject every slaughterhouse employee or farmer to prosecution." Under California law, evidence that the dog was "maimed, wounded, tortured, mutilated or tormented" beyond what was necessary to use it for food was necessary for a conviction. ("Refugees Who Killed, Ate Puppy Not Guilty of Animal Cruelty," San Francisco Recorder, Mar. 16, 1989.)  The California legislature responded to this case by passing a law making it a crime to kill an animal "traditionally or commonly kept as a pet" for food. (Cal. Penal Code § 598b.)

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