Robyn E. Blumner

Tolerance for the small, outsider church

Ever heard of Santeria? If you weren't born in Cuba or Miami you might not have. Santeria is a syncretic faith that originated in Cuba as a combination of the Yoruba African slave traditions mixed with the Catholicism of Spanish plantation owners.

And a substantial part of Santeria tradition involves the ritual slaughter of animals.

In the late 1980s, in an effort to keep the Santerias from building a church, school and cultural center in the city of Hialeah in South Florida, the city council banned the ceremonial killing of animals — even if humanely done. Essentially, the city said that you could kill an animal in Hialeah, as long as you didn't pray over it in the process.

This was blatant religious bigotry — and so agreed the U.S. Supreme Court when it ruled unanimously for the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye. (Babalu Aye refers to a Santeria deity, and yes, this is what Ricky Ricardo was singing about.)

"Although 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,' " Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the court.

I bring this up because the high court on Wednesday had another case before it that reeked of religious animus toward a small, outsider church.

The Summum religion was founded in 1975 in Utah. The sect meets in a large pyramid it built in Salt Lake City and practices the rites of "mummification and transference." The religion has a new-age flavor, but it also claims ancient roots. The Summum believe that Moses actually received two sets of tablets on Mount Sinai, the first being the Seven Aphorisms, described as "principles underlying Creation and all of nature."

When the Summum tried to donate an Aphorisms monument to Pleasant Grove City, Utah, to sit beside the granite Ten Commandments monument in a local park, the city rejected it.

The justices were asked whether this refusal constituted a violation of the Constitution's free speech clause. The Summum claim that because freedom of speech has historically been fully protected in public parks, permanent displays from all comers must be tolerated when the city accepts a Decalogue and other donated statues.

My guess is that the court is not going to embrace this position. Judging from the oral argument — which is always tricky — I think the court will equate the city's park to a public sculpture garden or history display where the government as curator can pick and choose which structures to allow.

But this raises the question of the outright hostility the city expressed toward this small religion. Should a city be allowed to prefer one religion over another? Doesn't the Constitution's Establishment Clause protect us from religious intolerance?

It should, of course. When members of the Summum church pass by the Ten Commandments in the park, they will know their views are not welcome there. But in a 2005 decision the high court seemed to okay this kind of discrimination.

Ruling 5-4, the Supreme Court permitted a Ten Commandments monument to remain on the grounds of the Texas Capitol in Austin. Justice Stephen Breyer, the swing vote, justified it by saying the monument had been there 40 years and was part of a broader display of cultural heritage.

Or in more stark terms: The majority gets to promote its religion through government as long as it's dressed up to appear as history.

In the Summum case, the Establishment Clause issue is not before the court, but if it were I'd worry about how the court would rule. The current majority doesn't seem much concerned about the rights of those who worship differently.

Official religious bigotry was something the Bill of Rights ostensibly banished. More than 200 years later, apparently, it is still a work in progress.

Tolerance for the small, outsider church 11/15/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 19, 2008 5:04pm]

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