The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit has ruled in favor of a Santeria priest — Jose Merced, 46 — who sacrificed goats in his Texas home in Euless. The court ruled that the prohibition on the ritual violated the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act (TRFRA).
Previously, U.S. District Judge John McBryde ruled against the Puerto Rico native.
Santeria as an Afro-Cuban religion that calls for the sacrifice of up to nine four-legged animals and up to 20 chickens or other fowl and a turtle. The court described the tradition:
Modern-day Santeria originated in Cuba and is a fusion of western African tribal religion and some elements of Roman Catholicism. Its practice centers around spirits called orishas, which are divine representatives of Olodumare, the supreme deity. Santeria rituals seek to engage these orishas, honor them, and encourage their involvement in the material world. Doing so requires the No. 08-10358 use of life energy, or ashé, the highest concentration of which is found in animal blood. Thus many Santeria rituals involve the sacrifice of live animals to transfer ashé to the orishas. Although animal sacrifices are used to celebrate a range of events, including birth, marriage, and death, the most complex ceremony takes place when a new priest is initiated. This ceremony, at which a new shrine is consecrated, generally involves a sacrifice of five to seven four-legged animals (lambs or goats), a turtle, a duck, ten to fourteen chickens, five to seven guinea hens, and ten to fourteen doves in addition to other elements (songs, drum music, and the offering of other objects). The animals are usually cooked and eaten after these sacrifices.
Police in September 2004 halted a sacrificial ritual after complaints from a neighbor.
Judge Jennifer Elrod wrote for the panel in favor of Merced.
Merced cannot perform the ceremonies dictated by his religion. This is a burden, and it is substantial. It is real and significant, having forced Merced to choose between living in Euless and practicing his religion. Cf. Adkins, 393 F.3d at 570 (holding that a government’s regulation is significant if it “forces the adherent to choose between, on the one hand, enjoying some generally available, non-trivial benefit, and, on the other hand, following his religious beliefs”).
Indeed, the burden on Merced is even greater because, like the Amish parents in Yoder, he faces criminal prosecution if he engages in conduct essential to his religion. See 406 U.S. at 218.16 Euless also argues that a burden is not substantial if it is incidental by way of a law of general application. Such an interpretation violates TRFRA’s plain language. TRFRA applies to “any rule, order, decision, practice, or other exercise of governmental authority.” Tex. Civ. Prac. & Rem. Code § 110.002(a) (emphasis added). This broad language does not permit this court to read an exception into the statute for generally applicable laws that incidentally burden religious conduct.
For the opinion, click here.