It's not every day that Baptists, Mormons and the National Association of Evangelicals are bound in common cause with Presbyterians, Lutherans and liberal groups such as Norman Lear's People for the American Way.
Even rarer is for such an unlikely alliance to fight for something many Americans would find repugnant: the ritual slaughter of goats, chickens and other animals.
But when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its decision last week in a case involving a Hialeah church practicing the Afro-Cuban religion of Santeria, religious-rights advocates, including many mainline churches, breathed a collective sigh of relief.
Why? They feared that if the court had ruled against the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, government officials everywhere could restrict all sorts of religious practices _ including mainstream ones.
"We consider (the decision) an important win for religious liberty," said Forest Montgomery, counsel for the National Association of Evangelicals, which represents about 15-million Christians and 44 denominations. "It's a clear message to government officials that they can't single out a church for discriminatory legislation."
"In effect it was permissible to kill an animal for any reason in the city of Hialeah except a religious reason," said Oliver Thomas, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee, which represents 10 Baptist bodies and is separate from the fundamentalist-controlled national Southern Baptist Convention. "That sort of religious gerrymandering has no place in a society committed to freedom of conscience."
"The court has recognized that it was absurd for this community (Hialeah) to permit the killing of animals for food, for sport and for pest control but to make it illegal for religious purposes," Barry Lynn, executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, a Maryland organization, said in a news release.
The justices ruled unanimously that Hialeah's ban on ritual animal sacrifice violated the First Amendment's guarantee of the free exercise of religion because the goal of the ordinances was to suppress the Santeria religion.
"The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship service was the object of the ordinances," Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote in the opinion.
In 1987 Hialeah's city council adopted ordinances addressing religious animal sacrifice. The chief one defined sacrifice as "to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption."
No matter that the ordinances didn't state their true intent, the ruling said. It pointed out that Hialeah did not ban killing animals for other reasons _ for food, including kosher ritual slaughter, or for such recreational pursuits as hunting and fishing. "Careful drafting ensured that although Santeria sacrifice is prohibited, killings that are no more necessary or humane in almost all other circumstances are unpunished," Kennedy wrote.
Animal sacrifice makes Santeria profoundly different from most other religions in America. Santeria, whose roots date back thousands of years to West Africa, came to the Americas with slavery and gained a strong foothold in Latin America, especially heavily Catholic Cuba and Brazil. Santeria survived in part by adopting some of the outward symbols of Catholicism, including links between the Santeria deities and Catholic saints.
At least 50,000 people are believed to practice Santeria in South Florida. There are perhaps 2,000 priests and priestesses in the Tampa Bay area, estimates Raul Canizares, a University of South Florida adjunct instructor who wrote a book on the religion. Canizares was born into Santeria and said he practices it as part of his scholarly research but is now a practicing Catholic. He said he was preparing to fly to New York on Wednesday to tape a Phil Donahue show on the Santeria ruling.
In interviews, Canizares has defended Santeria's animal sacrifice, saying the killing is done by trained practitioners and is far less cruel than what happens on deer hunts or in slaughterhouses.
Sacrificed animals usually are cooked and eaten as part of the ritual, but in some rituals the carcasses are discarded.
After the court's ruling, several Santeria priests in Tampa "agreed that anybody who abuses animals should face the letter of the law," Canizares said.
"If anybody mistreats animals, whether they be Santeria people or Catholic or Jews or whatever, I feel they should be punished according to the law," Canizares said.
Of Santeria's ritual killing, Canizares said: "It's part of the tradition. They (Santeria practitioners) believe it was instituted by God as a way of thanking the Earth, as a way of reminding ourselves of the sanctity of human life."
Ernesto Pichardo, founder of the Hialeah church, last week called the court's decision "of profound significance."
"Animal sacrifice is an integral part of our faith," he said. "It is like our holy meal. The decision means that our people will no longer feel they are outlaws because of the way they worship God."
Despite such sentiment, some find Santeria's ritualistic killing repulsive, and they take issue with the way the Supreme Court arrived at its decision.
Among them is Charles H. Hamblen Jr., a retired political science professor who teaches in Eckerd College's Elderhostel program and is a member of Eckerd's Academy of Senior Professionals.
"As a person who cares a great deal about animals and rights of animals, I really think it was kind of a horrendous decision," Hamblen said.
While Hamblen views the court's decision as "constitutionally sound" according to the First Amendment, he argues that the justices could have used the 10th Amendment to ban the Santeria church's practices. The 10th Amendment grants states certain rights not delegated to the federal government.
"The 10th Amendment has been interpreted by the courts (to permit) the states to control the health, welfare and safety of its citizens," Hamblen said. While animals, not citizens, are at risk in Santeria ritual, Hamblen maintains the 10th Amendment could apply nonetheless.
"I am a civil libertarian, but in this particular case, I have both an emotional and a psychological commitment to animals," Hamblen said.
Hamblen also noted that courts in past cases have banned such religious practices as polygamy among Mormons and restricted reliance on faith healing for desperately sick children.
He also pointed to a 1990 case that remains hotly contested by many religious groups and some Supreme Court justices who concurred with the majority opinion in the Santeria ruling. That case, Employment Division vs. Smith, allowed Oregon to deny unemployment benefits to two workers fired for using peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, in American Indian religious ceremonies.
Despite objections like Hamblen's to the Santeria ruling, many religious groups make a compelling First Amendment argument in favor of allowing a religious practice that they themselves may not endorse.
"We look at the constitutional principle involved, not whether we agree or disagree with the theology," said Montgomery of the National Association of Evangelicals.
"You have to look at it as a ban on a sacrament of a religion _ a religious practice. If they can ban a religious practice that most of us . . . find repugnant, then they can ban a (popular) religious practice."
As to the 10th Amendment argument, Montgomery said, "I couldn't disagree more. . . . I don't agree with the idea that animals have rights greater than the religious rights of human beings."
Montgomery's group was among 16 that filed a friend-of-the-court brief urging the court to strike down the ban on the Santeria church's practices. The others were Americans United for Separation of Church and State, the Presbyterian Church (USA), American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress, Anti-Defamation League, Baptist Joint Committee, Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, Christian Legal Society, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, First Liberty Institute, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Home School Legal Defense Association, Mennonite Central Committee, and People for the American Way.
Thomas of the Baptist Joint Committee said he helped write the brief filed on behalf of the coalition.
"Many of the groups (that joined the case) think animal sacrifice is abhorrent," he said. "Certainly none of us take the position that it is proper theologically. But that is not the business of government to decide _ whether a particular practice is proper theologically."
Thomas said the religious groups feared that allowing government to discriminate against a religious practice such as ritual animal sacrifice "could spill over into other areas."
"For example, religion could be treated unfairly under a zoning law or a taxing law or a lobbying law or even something as basic as the right of a student to share his or her religious faith with a classmate. Speech rights could have been curtailed on the basis of their religious content, we feared. . . .
"The law is made in cases involving very small or unpopular religious minorities," Thomas said. "Therein lies the danger. Frequently the public wants to find a way to hold against these unpopular groups without realizing that the law created for Rev. Moon, Jimmy Swaggart and the Santeria Church is the law that applies to the Presbyterian Church, the Baptist Church" and others.
". . . The American public finds it very hard to see past the dead chickens and goats."
The Santeria ruling must be viewed along with another unanimous Supreme Court ruling last week on religious rights, Thomas said. In that decision, the court said religious groups should have the same after-hours access to public school facilities as other community groups.
"The cases taken together I think demonstrate emphatically that religion cannot be singled out for discriminatory treatment in this society," Thomas said.
While many religious groups expressed satisfaction with last week's ruling, they remain disturbed about the 1990 ruling concerning use of peyote in American Indian rituals. They say it hinders religious freedom.
In that ruling, the court voted 6-3 to let government infringe on a religious practice if the law is "neutral" and of "general applicability" and isn't targeted at a particular sect.
Three of the justices in last week's Santeria case criticized the ruling in separate opinions, but the court as a whole gave no indication it is ready to abandon it.
A bill moving through Congress would overturn the 1990 ruling. Called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, it was passed unanimously by the House on May 11 but hasn't come to a vote in the Senate. A broad coalition of religious and civil liberty groups endorses it.
_ Information from the New York Times and Times files was used in this story.