(CN) – The 5th Circuit ruled that a Texas town can’t ban a Santeria priest from sacrificing animals at his home. The court said the ban placed a “substantial burden” on the religious practices of the Euless resident, who observes a Caribbean religion that mixes African faith with Roman Catholic and Native American beliefs.
Jose Merced emigrated from Puerto Rico to Euless in 1990 and had been sacrificing animals in a room off his garage until 2004, when a neighbor called police, who told him to stop the sacrifices.
Merced performed the animal sacrifice in adherence to Santeria, which calls for life energy – or ashé – in the form of animal blood to be offered to Santeria divinities, known as orishas. Animal sacrifice is especially important in the initiation of new Santeria priests, a ceremony that typically involves sacrificing five to seven four-legged animals, (usually lambs or goats), a turtle, a duck, 10 to 14 chickens, five to seven guinea hens, and 10 to 14 doves. Merced completed about one initiation ceremony per year.
Merced sued Euless in 2006 after being told that no permit exists allowing him to legally perform the sacrifices. A federal judge held a bench trial and dismissed Merced’s case.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit reversed, saying it was “troubled” by the conclusion that Merced’s religious practice wasn’t burdened, because the Orishas didn’t tell him to sacrifice animals in his home. Judges are “ill-suited” to evaluate religious intricacies, Judge Elrod wrote.
With about a quarter of a million practitioners worldwide and only two official temples – neither of which lie in the United States – home sacrifice becomes a crucial component of Santeria practice, the New Orleans-based court wrote.
It said the government’s concerns over public health and animal treatment were adequately mitigated by Merced’s “humane” practice of slitting the animal’s carotid artery and double-bagging the inedible remains, which he then disposed of in the trash.
Merced conducted his sacrifices for 16 years without incident, the court wrote, and has put priest initiation on hold since being banned in Euless. This constitutes a “substantial burden” on his religious practice, Judge Elrod wrote.
The town carries out selective enforcement by not prosecuting hunters or veterinarians under the same ordinances, the 5th Circuit noted, and urged Euless to develop a special permit for Santeria practitioners.
The court remanded the case for further proceedings.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that animal cruelty laws targeting religious sacrifice are unconstitutional.
Santeria, also known as Lukumi, is based largely on beliefs originating among the Yoruba people of West Africa.