Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993)

2012-06-04 03:12:39

A central theme of the U. S. Constitution, particularly in the balance of powers between the various branches of government and in the federal system itself, is protecting the rights of minorities against the unchecked power of majorities. Alexander Hamilton, writing in Federalist 78, saw an independent judiciary as ‘‘an essential safeguard against the effects of occasional ill humors in society’’ and ‘‘the injury of the private rights of particular classes of citizens, by unjust and partial laws’’ (Federalist 78).

As unwilling to place fundamental rights at the mercy of democratic but sometimes ephemeral and unjust decisions as under the autocratic whims of a monarch, the Founders sought to further enshrine them in the Constitution itself. The decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye exemplifies the wisdom of amending the Constitution to include a Bill of Rights, particularly the clauses of the First Amendment that promote religious liberty.

The petitioners practiced Santeria (‘‘the way of the saints’’), a religion that developed in the crucible of the African slave trade in the New World and fused elements of the Yoruba traditions with those of Roman Catholicism. A central tenet of Santeria involves the invocation of the assistance of orishas (spirits), particularly through the use of animal sacrifice. In 1987 the Church leased land in the City of Hialeah, Florida, and announced plans to build a complex that included a house of worship, school, cultural center, and museum.

The Church’s announcement caused an upheaval in the community. The City Council convened an emergency meeting and unanimously passed not only a resolution expressing concern ‘‘that certain religions may propose to engage in practices that are inconsistent with public morals, peace or safety,’’ but also a series of ordinances banning certain ritual killings of animals and their use in sacrifices.

The Church responded by suing the City and various officials pursuant to 42 U.S.C. } 1983, claiming that the ordinances violated their rights under the Free Exercise Clause of the Constitution. Federal district and appellate courts upheld the laws, and the Church appealed.

The Supreme Court of the United States held that all of the ordinances were unconstitutional. Writing for a unanimous but conflicted Court, Justice Anthony Kennedy first acknowledged that, under the holding in a 1990 case, Employment Div’n, Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, a law that had the incidental effect of burdening a particular religious practice may be constitutional even in the absence of a Compelling State Interest as long as it was neutral and of general applicability.

The Court found, however, that the City ordinances at issue failed the neutrality test both textually and in their operation. Therefore, the precedent in Smith did not apply, and the Court was obliged to evaluate the ordinances under a standard of strict scrutiny, that is, that they had to be justified by a compelling governmental interest and were narrowly tailored to advance that interest.

The Court observed that the legislative history of the ordinances, their wording, and their application all amply demonstrated that their purpose was to suppress animal sacrifice, a central element of Santeria. Because they were overbroad in some respects and underinclusive in others, the Court found that the ordinances constituted a ‘‘religious gerrymander . . . an impermissible attempt to target petitioners and their religious practices.’’

For example, the Court found that an ordinance’s definition of ‘‘sacrifice’’ was drafted in such a way to permit all forms of killing animals except for religious sacrifice. At the same time, it found that other challenged ordinances were written more broadly than necessary to achieve the City’s preferred secular purposes of protecting public health and preventing cruelty to animals. The Court concluded: ‘‘The Free Exercise Clause commits government itself to exercise 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.’’

In a sense, this case represented little more than an adherence to a line of precedents protecting the rights of religious minorities under both religion clauses of the First Amendment. See, for example Fowler v. Rhode Island (municipal ordinance violated Free Exercise Clause where interpreted to ban preaching in a public park by Jehovah’s Witnesses but permit preaching at Roman Catholic Mass or Protestant service) and Larson v. Valente (state law that excepted some, but not all, religious organizations from registration and reporting requirements for charitable solicitations violated Establishment Clause). At the same time, it provided the Court with an opportunity, one particularly evident in the array of concurrences to the Court’s judgment, to revisit the decision in Smith and to ask whether it may have given the government too much power to inhibit or otherwise burden religious practices.


References and Further Reading

  • Goldberg, Steven B. Seduced by Science: How American Religion Has Lost Its Way. New York: New York University Press, 2000, 68–83.
  • Loewy, Arthur H. Religion and the Constitution: Cases and Materials. St. Paul, MN: West Group, 1999.
  • Sullivan, Kathleen. Constitutional Law (13th Ed.). Westbury, NY: The Foundation Press, 1997, 1461–1500.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Employment Div’n, Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990)
  • Fowler v. Rhode Island, 345 U.S. 67 (1953)
  • Larson v. Valente, 456 U.S. 228 (1982)

See also Amish and Religious Liberty; Application of First Amendment to States; Balancing Approach to Free Speech; Bill of Rights: Structure; Bob Jones University v. United States, 461 U.S. 574 (1983); Bowen v. Roy, 476 U.S. 693 (1986); Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296 (1940); Catholics and Religious Liberty; City of Boerne v. Flores, 521 U.S. 507 (1997); Compelling State Interest; Defining Religion; Employment Division, Department of Human Resources v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990); Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421 (1962); English Toleration Act; Equal Protection Clause and Religious Freedom; Equal Protection of Law (XIV); Establishment of Religion and Free Exercise Clauses; Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1 (1947); Free Exercise Clause (I): History, Background, Framing; Free Exercise Clause Doctrine: Supreme Court Jurisprudence; Goldman v. Weinberger, 475 U.S. 503 (1986); Good News Club v. Milford Central School, 533 U.S. 98 (2001); Hernandez v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue, 490 U.S. 680 (1989); Jehovah’s Witnesses and Religious Liberty; Jews and Religious Liberty; Kennedy, Anthony McLeod; Lamb’s Chapel v. Center Moriches Union Free School District, 508 U.S. 384 (1993); Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 485 U.S. 439 (1988); McDaniel v. Paty, 435 U.S. 618 (1978); Mormons and Religious Liberty; Muslims and Religious Liberty; NLRB v. Catholic Bishop of Chicago, 440 U.S. 490 (1979); O’Lone v. Estate of Shabazz, 482 U.S. 342 (1987); Pierce v. Society of Sisters, 268 U.S. 510 (1925); Prisoners and Free Exercise Clause Rights; Private Religious Speech on Public Property; Quakers and Religious Liberty; Religious Freedom Restoration Act; Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act; Reynolds v. United States, 98 U.S. 145 (1878); Seventh Day Adventists and Religious Liberty; Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 (1963); State Religious Freedom Statutes; Theories of Civil Liberties; United States v. Lee, 455 U.S. 252 (1982); Walz v. Tax Commission of City of New York , 397 U.S. 664 (1970); Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972)