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Animal Sacrifice and Religious Freedom

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah

David M. O’Brien

March 2004
208 pages, 5-1/2 x 8-1/2
Landmark Law Cases and American Society
Cloth ISBN 978-0-7006-1302-1, $29.95
Paper ISBN 978-0-7006-1303-8, $16.95

book cover imageThe Santeria religion of Cuba--the Way of the Saints--mixes West African Yoruba culture with Catholicism. Similar to Haitian voodoo, Santeria has long practiced animal sacrifice in certain rites. But when Cuban immigrants brought those rituals to Florida, local authorities were suddenly confronted with a controversial situation that pitted the regulation of public health and morality against religious freedom.

After Ernesto Pichardo established a Santeria church in Hialeah in the 1980s, the city of Hialeah responded by passing ordinances banning ritual animal sacrifice. Although on the surface those ordinances seemed general in intent, they were clearly aimed at Pichardo’s church. When Pichardo subsequently sued the city, a federal court ruled in the latter’s favor, in effect privileging the regulation of public health and morality over the church’s free exercise of its religion.

The U.S. Supreme Court heard Pichardo’s appeal in 1993 and unanimously decided that the city had overstepped its bounds in targeting this particular religious group; however, the court was sharply divided regarding the basis of its decision. Three concurring opinions registered distinctly different views of the First Amendment, the limits of government regulation, and the religious freedom of minorities. In the end, the nine justices collectively concluded that freedom of religious belief was absolute while the freedom to practice the tenets of any faith were subject to non-discriminatory local regulations.

David O’Brien, one of America’s foremost scholars of the Court, now illuminates this controversy and its significance for law, government, and religion in America. His lively account takes us behind the scenes at every stage of the litigation to reveal a riveting case with more twists and turns than a classic whodunit. Ranging with equal ease from primitive magic to municipal politics and to the most arcane points of constitutional law, O’Brien weaves a compelling and instructive tale with a fascinating array of politicians, lawyers, jurists, civil libertarians, and animal rights advocates. Offering sharp insights into the key issues and personalities, he highlights cultural clashes large and small, while maintaining a balance for both the needs of government and the religious rights of individuals.

“A fascinating tale told with O’Brien’s signature stylish flair and deep understanding of the legal issues central to this case. Should appeal to anyone who loves a great story and cares about the tug-of-war between government regulation and religious freedom.”--Nadine Strossen, President, American Civil Liberties Union, and Professor of Law, New York Law School

“A riveting, blow-by-blow account of one of the most interesting religious freedom cases to be decided by the Supreme Court in the twentieth century. The mix of unorthodox religious practice, religious persecution, political intrigue, and pursuit of justice make for a superb story that will fascinate general and expert readers alike.”--Derek Davis, author of Original Intent: Chief Justice Rehnquist and the Course of American Church/State Relations

“O’Brien is both a fine scholar and master storyteller and his book is an important contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of minority religion in America. He has a sharp eye for colorful characters as well as legal principle, and he guides us easily through the tangled immigrant politics of South Florida, the history of American law concerning religious freedom, and the exchanges among litigants, amici, attorneys, and judges on the road to decision.”--Joseph M. Murphy, author of Santeria: African Spirits in America

DAVID M. O'BRIEN is Leone Reaves and George W. Spicer Professor at the University of Virginia. His other books include Storm Center: The Supreme Court in American Politics, now in its sixth edition, and a two-volume casebook, Constitutional Law and Politics, now in its fifth edition.

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