WASHINGTON — THREE years ago, the Supreme Court dramatically trimmed the scope of the Constitution's free-exercise of religion clause in what may arguably have been the furthest stretch of the court's overall shift to the right.
So the next free-exercise case the court took was among the most closely watched of this year.
On Friday, the justices unanimously decided that the Constitution protected an unpopular religion in south Florida from local ordinances targeting its practices.
The decision surprised few. It did not roll back the court's last free-exercise decision in 1990. But to the relief of churches across the religious spectrum, it did not extend the earlier decision either.
The case of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. the City of Hialeah pitted a city ordinance against the ritual slaughter of animals against a Santeria church that sacrifices animals such as chickens and goats in its rituals.
Hialeah is a heavily Cuban, working-class city near Miami. The Santeria religion is a fusion of African animism brought to the Caribbean by Yoruba slaves and the Roman Catholicism of the Spanish settlers. Devotees of Santeria worship Catholic saints as spirits, who must be sustained through animal sacrifices.
In south Florida, an estimated 70,000 people practice Santeria. Local Piggly Wiggly supermarkets carry the little bottles Santeristas use in rituals. But when a Santeria priest bought land in Hialeah to create a large church to bring the mostly secret religion into the open, Hialeah residents and officials made clear that the religion was wildly unpopular.
In 1987, Hialeah passed ordinances barring the "sacrifice" or killing of animals "in a ritual." The city argued before the court that its reasons included public health concerns, since the animal remains of Santeria sacrifices are sometimes found in parking lots or floating in canals. It argued against cruelty to animals, since Santeria rites kill animals through a method that is not reliably efficient. Singling out religion
Attorneys for the Santeria church argued that those concerns could be dealt with directly without banning sacrifices. Residents of Hialeah, the attorneys noted, could kill animals for sport or food. They just could not kill them for religious purposes.
The court determined that this was a singling out of religion that was clearly barred by the free exercise of religion clause of the Constitution.
The justices found the discrimination against religion so plain that even under the narrow reading of religious freedom offered in their 1990 decision, the Hialeah ordinances had to go.
Outside of Hialeah itself, the most vocal disappointment in the decision Friday was from animal rights activists, such as the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Although the justices did not have to revisit their 1990 decision to rule against Hialeah, several did anyway. Two of them, Sandra Day O'Connor and Harry Blackmun, were dissenters in that case. A third, David Souter, was not yet sitting on the court and went well out of his way to use his opinion Friday to differ with the previous decision.
In the 1990 case, Smith v. Oregon, native Americans were convicted under Oregon drug laws for smoking the drug peyote as part of their traditional religious observances. In a 5-to-4 decision, the court ruled that since the drug laws were neutral and generally applicable, and barred a religious practice only incidentally, they did not violate the Constitution. Previously, the court had held that government had to show a compelling interest in any law that disrupted the free-exercise of religion.
After Smith, even serving communion wine to minors in church could theoretically be prosecuted under drinking age laws, while practices like human sacrifice could always have been held illegal, religious or not, because of compelling state interest in protecting life. `God and government'
The Smith v. Oregon ruling instigated a bill in Congress to counter it, the Freedom of Religion Act, which recently passed the House but has not yet reached the Senate floor.
"Neutral, generally applicable laws," writes Justice Souter in his opinion Friday, "drafted as they are from the perspective of the non-adherent, have the unavoidable potential of putting the believer to a choice between God and government.... The case before us is rightly decided without resolving the existing tension, which remains for another day when it must be squarely faced."