Appeals Court Rules Texas City Must Allow Goat Sacrifices

[On July 31, 2009] the Fifth Circuit federal court of appeals in New Orleans ruled that Euless, Texas must allow Santeria priest Jose Merced to sacrifice goats in his home in Euless, Texas. Merced, who is represented by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, had not been able to practice his religion since the city of Euless, based on two anonymous phone calls, had barred him from sacrificing animals in his home, an integral part of Santeria, three years ago.

“Religious freedom doesn’t mean much if you can’t peacefully worship in your own way in your own home. The Fifth Circuit got that right today,” said Eric Rassbach, National Litigation Director of The Becket Fund. “The Becket Fund took on this case not just to vindicate the rights of Mr. Merced, but also to protect the ability of every believer to worship in his own home as his conscience dictates, without undue government interference.”

The Fifth Circuit found that the city of Euless was in violation of the Texas Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The decision also found that the city’s arguments that allowing Santeria would “endanger public health,” were “like the report of Mark Twain’s death, greatly exaggerated.”

“Turns out that there will be religious freedom in Euless, Texas after all,” added Rassbach.

Merced, a Puerto Rico native and a practitioner of Santeria since childhood, had sued in Fort Worth federal district court, arguing that Euless’s selective enforcement of its laws violated his religious freedom rights under the First Amendment and Texas state law. He also relied on a 1993 Supreme Court case, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah. Merced’s sacrifices were performed in humane manner, utilizing a method that is approved as humane by federal statute. Most of the animal meat was consumed in a ceremonial dinner and the leftovers were disposed of neatly.

Santeria is an Afro-Caribbean religion based on the traditional beliefs of Nigeria’s Yoruba tribe, who brought it to the New World as slaves. In Cuba, it merged with some Christian beliefs and evolved into modern day Santeria, where its gods, or orishas, are reached through animal sacrifices. Santeria priests are trained to perform humane ritual sacrifice and the animals are consumed in a communal meal after the ceremony. Douglas Laycock, University of Michigan law professor and preeminent religious liberty scholar, represented Lukumi Babalu Aye in 1993, and is co-counsel to the Becket Fund in Merced’s appeal.

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