In 1993, the Supreme Court granted constitutional protections to an Afro-Cuban religious group that sacrifices animals, such goats, chickens, ducks and turtles, as a form of ritual.
More than two decades later, specifically Thursday, three federal appeals court judges relied partly on that ruling when they declined to reinstate President Trump’s controversial entry ban on refugees and citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries.
The states of Washington and Minnesota, which sued to block Trump’s executive order, cited the president’s fiery rhetoric and a previous statement about a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the country to prove that his directive was meant to discriminate against one religion. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed, citing the 23-year-old Supreme Court ruling on animal sacrifices as precedent.
In the 1993 case, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye Inc., a Florida nonprofit group, sued the city of Hialeah, Fla., in federal court, saying its ordinances prohibiting animal sacrifices violate the First Amendment’s guarantee of the free exercise of religion. The group practices Santería, which has been described as a “fusion” between elements of Roman Catholicism and the religion of Western Africa’s Yoruba people, who were brought as slaves to Cuba.
The city won. A federal district judge ruled that the ordinances are meant to protect public health and welfare and the laws’ effects on religious practice are merely incidental. A federal appeals court upheld the ruling. The Supreme Court reversed it in June 1993.
Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who’s still on the bench, wrote that the city’s laws were unconstitutional because they targeted the Santería religion and its practices, but not other similar activities that harm animals, like slaughtering them for food.
“The principle that government may not enact laws that suppress religious belief or practice is so well understood that few violations are recorded in our opinions,” Kennedy wrote. “Our review confirms that the laws in question were enacted by officials who did not understand, failed to perceive, or chose to ignore the fact that their official actions violated the Nation’s essential commitment to religious freedom.”
Governmental interests of protecting public health and preventing animal cruelty can be addressed in other less restrictive ways, such as regulations on how to dispose of organic garbage, how to care for animals, or how to slaughter them, Kennedy wrote.
Believers of Santería worship the spirits called orishas, and they mainly show their devotion through animal sacrifices performed at birth, marriage and death rites. Their rituals are also done to cure the sick and during the initiation of new members and priests. The sacrificed animals are cooked and eaten at ceremonies, except after healing and death rituals.
The idea of animal sacrifices alarmed residents of Hialeah, so much so that the City Council called an emergency public session and enacted several resolutions and ordinances banning religious sacrifices. The laws were passed in 1987, after the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye Inc. leased a piece of property in the city and announced plans to build a complex that would include a house of worship, a school, a cultural center and a museum.
To make the case that the laws unconstitutionally targeted a religious group, the justices cited one of the resolutions enacted by city leaders. It stated: “This community will not tolerate religious practices which are abhorrent to its citizens.”
The justices also listed public statements that city leaders made about Santería.
One council member said during a public meeting that believers “are in violation of everything this country stands for.” The president of the City Council also asked during a meeting, “What can we do to prevent the church from opening?”
Similarly, in the case of Trump’s travel ban, the appeals court relied on the president’s previous statements about Muslims.
“In Hialeah in the 1990s, it was Santeria. With Trump, it’s Muslims,” University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, an expert of religious liberties who argued the Hialeah case, told the Miami Herald.
Shortly after the federal appeals court in San Francisco ruled against the administration, Trump announced that he is considering rewriting his executive order. The president told reporters on Air Force One that he would probably wait until Monday or Tuesday to take any action. White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus also said that several options — including taking the case to the Supreme Court — were still on the table.
Matt Zapotosky, Philip Rucker and Rachel Weiner contributed to this story.