In a strong defense of religious freedom for even the most unpopular sects, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously Friday that a Florida city may not suppress the African religion of Santeria by banning the ritual sacrifice of animals.
No religion or religious practice may be "singled out for discriminatory treatment," the high court said, even if its activities are viewed as abhorrent.
The Constitution "commits government itself to religious tolerance," said Justice Anthony Kennedy for the court. "Legislators may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised, designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices."
Friday's ruling did not so much make new law as highlight an old principle.
The First Amendment guarantees to all Americans "the free exercise of religion," but that clause is rarely invoked in legal cases, mostly because government bodies rarely seek to suppress a religion.
However, the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. Hialeah proved to be the exception.
In 1987, residents of Hialeah, a Miami suburb, reacted angrily when they learned that leaders of the Santeria faith planned to open a church there.
The religion originated with the Yoruba people of west Africa and came to this hemisphere with blacks who had been sold into slavery. During the 19th century, it became enmeshed with elements of Catholicism.
In recent years, an estimated 50,000 Santerians have settled in South Florida. Their worship services regularly include the sacrifice of chickens, goats, ducks and other small animals.
Angry residents told the Hialeah City Council that animals were being kept in filthy, inhumane conditions and that they were being slaughtered cruelly by cutting their neck arteries. In response, the city enacted new laws making "public ritualistic animal sacrifices" a crime.
In their appeal to the Supreme Court, church lawyers stressed that animals can be killed in South Florida for virtually any reason except for religious purposes.
For example, Hialeah residents can kill animals for sport through hunting and fishing. They can certainly slaughter animals for food. They can kill rodents as pests. Stray dogs and cats can be put to death as well.
"The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship was the object of the ordinances," wrote Kennedy in a 26-page opinion.