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Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah

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Significance: Overturning a local ban on animal sacrifices, the Supreme Court announced that it would use the strict scrutiny test in examining any law targeting religious conduct for special restrictions.


Believers in the Santer­a religion, which combines African and Roman Catholic traditions, practice animal sacrifices in order to appeal to benevolent spirits to heal the sick and promote good fortune. Many other people in the United States, however, find such ceremonies to be highly offensive. In 1987 a Santer­a congregation announced plans to establish a house of worship in the city of Hialeah, Florida. Responding to a public outcry, the Hialeah city council passed several ordinances that made it illegal to kill animals in religious ceremonies, while still allowing the killing of animals for human consumption. After federal district and appellate courts upheld the ordinances, the justices of the Supreme Court ruled they were unconstitutional. Speaking for a unanimous Court, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy explained that when a law is plainly directed at restricting a religious practice, it must satisfy two tests: The restriction must be justified by a compelling state interest, and the restriction must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. General and neutral laws may proscribe cruelty to animals or require the safe disposal of animal wastes; however, a community may not place a direct burden on an unpopular religious practice without a strong secular justification. Justice Kennedy's opinion did not entirely please libertarians because it did not overturn Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith (1990), which allowed for the more lenient test of rationality in examining laws putting an incidental burden on a religious practice. Three justices David H. Souter, Harry A. Blackmun, and Sandra Day O’Connor concurred with the ruling but expressed disagreement with the Smith precedent.