Wednesday Writs for 7/10
L1: In the 19th century, the Yoruba people of Western Africa were captured and taken to Cuba as slaves. The Yoruba had their own religious rituals and practices, but heavy exposure to Catholicism led them to incorporate certain of elements into their practice, such as saints. Their new melded religion was called Santeria, or “the way of the saints”. The adoption of the trappings of Catholicism allowed them to practice their religion covertly, and the two religions are still symbiotic today; many Santerians also attend Catholic Mass. Santeria, which is often associated with the mystical and animal sacrifice, is still practiced by tens of thousands of people in the United States, Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, Columbia, and Venezuela. Because of its proximity to those locations, Florida has likely the largest number of Santeria practitioners in the country.
In 1987, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye announced they would build a worship center in Hialeah, Florida, along with a school, museum, and cultural center. Their goal was to bring awareness of their religion out into the open. The residents of Hialeah began to express alarm at the Church’s intended presence, including its admitted intention to conduct its ritual animal sacrifices. At an emergency meeting, the City Council passed two resolutions in response to the Church’s planned presence. The first declared the city’s “commitment to a prohibition against any and all acts of any and all religious groups which are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety”. The second incorporated Florida’s state law which criminalized the unnecessary or cruel killing of animals. Soon after, the council enacted a resolution declaring the city’s opposition to ritual animal sacrifice and announcing its intention to prosecute anyone who partook.
Next, the city passed a rather absurd ordinance which not only prohibited the slaughter of animals for religious purposes, but also prohibited owning an animal for the purpose of killing and eating it, exempting businesses licensed to raise animals for slaughter. Following that, just to be as overt as possible that their resolutions were targeting a particular establishment of religion, the city passed two additional ordinances. One of these flatly prohibited animal sacrifice in Hialeah, and the other prohibited the slaughter of animals for food, except in areas zoned for slaughterhouses- with an exemption for “small numbers of hogs and/or cattle per week…” All ordinances passed unanimously, and provided for a $500 fine or 60 days in jail for violation.
The Church, led by its high priest Ernesto Pachardo, filed suit against the city in federal court alleging violation of free exercise of religion in The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc, v. City of Hialeah, our case of the week. The District Court held a nine day bench trial, at the conclusion of which it ruled in the city’s favor. The Court acknowledged that the ordinances were not religiously neutral, and that they were passed because of the Church. But the Court reasoned that the City’s intent was not to push the church out of town but to stop the ritual sacrifice of animals for any purpose. The Court also held that a regulation affecting a religion is not unconstitutional, if the conduct is a threat to “public health and welfare.” Finally, the Court did not think the inability to perform ritual sacrifice was a significant impediment to their practices.
The Court went on to weigh the city’s interests against the Church’s religious freedom, and found four “compelling” interests on behalf of the city: sanitation; prevention of animal cruelty; protecting the children from emotional trauma of witnessing sacrifices; and the interest of the city in keeping animal slaughter confined to areas zoned for it.
The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the District Court in a single paragraph, dispensing with all reasoning set forth by the lower court and simply holding that the statutes did not violate the Constitution, without expounding.
When the case reached the Supreme Court of the United States, a much different result was reached. By a unanimous decision 1 via a scathing Kennedy-authored opinion, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts and ruled the ordinances were unconstitutional violations of free exercise of religion. Citing Thomas v. Review Bd. of Indiana Employment Security Div., a 1981 decision, the Court stated that “[A]lthough 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.’” The Court found the stated reasons of the City, as adopted by the District Court, were without sufficient merit to defeat the “strict scrutiny” standard of religious freedom challenges; that is, the ordinances were not “narrowly tailored” to a “compelling state interest.”
The Court recognized that a law which impacts a religious order is not unconstitutional where the law is applied neutrally and has general application. The City contended that the ordinances were neutral and general, citing the words “whoever… unnecessarily… kills an animal”. But the Court wasn’t buying it:
“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.”
The Court proceeded to dispense with each of the City’s pretextual justifications for their ordinances, which the justices recognized were aimed solely at prohibiting the practices of the Church.
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.
The Church is still in operation today in Hialeah.
L2: The biggest criminal law news of the week: the arrest of alleged pedophile/abuser of teen girls Jeffrey Epstein. Prosecutors opposed his release on bail with this thoroughly horrific letter to the court.
L3: Attorney General William Barr is recusing himself from the Epstein case, because he used to work for a law firm that once represented Epstein.
L3: In other creepy famous guy news, the case against Kevin Spacey may be losing traction, due to his accuser’s rumored refusal to cooperate with prosecutors.
L4: The DOJ regroups to continue its fight for President Trump’s census citizenship question, and tried to make some staffing changes to the legal team. Unfortunately, the judge was not impressed with their motion to substitute counsel.
L5: From across the pond, the story of the longest trial in British history: a libel suit by McDonald’s against two private citizens.
L6: Some developments in the case against Amber Guyger, who shot Botham Jean as he sat minding his own business in his own apartment, which she claims she thought was her own.
L7: Following a serious injury caused by a faulty dog collar sold on Amazon, a court in Pennsylvania ruled the online retail giant can be held liable for damages caused by unsafe products purchased through its website – a departure from most other decision.
L8: Montana is the most recent state to stop suspending driver’s licenses over unpaid court fines an costs. Maybe they should try a real deterrent — like hunting and fishing licenses, like they do here in West Virginia.
- Despite being a unanimous decision, the case produced one of the most fragmented unanimous opinions in SCOTUS history. From the headnote: “KENNEDY, J., delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, III, and IV, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, STEVENS, SCALIA, SOUTER, and THOMAS, JJ., joined, the opinion of the Court with respect to Part II-B, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and WHITE, STEVENS, SCALIA, and THOMAS, JJ., joined, the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts II-A-l and II-A-3, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., and STEVENS, SCALIA, and THOMAS, JJ., joined, and an opinion with respect to Part II-A-2, in which STEVENS, J., joined. SCALIA, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, in which REHNQUIST, C. J., joined, post, p. 557. SOUTER, J., filed an opinion concurring in part and concurring in the judgment, post, p. 559. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which O’CONNOR, J., joined, post, p. 577.