WASHINGTON -- In a case that may lead to a major ruling on freedom of minority religions from official bias, the Supreme Court agreed yesterday to review the constitutional rights of believers in a 4,000-year-old ritual of animal sacrifice.
A final decision in the case could test anew a deeply controversial, 5-4 ruling in 1990 allowing government to outlaw "harmful" forms of religious practice.
The case is a challenge by adherents of the Santeria faith to four city ordinances adopted in Hialeah, Fla., in 1987, forbidding animal killing as a ritual, while permitting ritual kosher slaughter and allowing hunters to kill their prey.
Besides agreeing to review that dispute, the court also took on a separate case with potentially wide impact. It tests the scope of a taxpayer's right to claim a federal tax deduction for the expenses of keeping an office at home.
The issue in that case is whether those deductions are forbidden if the individual does most of a business' activities outside the home, using the office just for administrative or billing chores. The case involves a McLean, Va., anesthesia specialist who works in hospital operating rooms but has his office at home (Commissioner of Internal Revenue vs. Soliman, No. 91-998).
In a third significant action yesterday, justices voted to leave intact a federal appeals court ruling that it is illegal under federal law for one marriage partner to secretly tap the other's conversations on their home telephone.
The court gave no reason for declining to review the lower-court decision, which grew out of marital troubles that led to a Texas couple's divorce (Heggy vs. Heggy, No. 91-1196).
In the religion case (Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye vs. City of Hialeah, No. 948), the constitutional controversy stemmed from efforts to bring into the open the largely underground religious life of more than 50,000 South Floridians, many of them Cuban exiles.
They are believers in the Santeria faith, which traces its origins to the Bantu people of southern Nigeria. African slaves brought that religion to Cuba, where their practice was outlawed; Cuban exiles brought it to Florida.
In the faith, chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea fowl, goats, tTC sheep and turtles are killed in a ritual manner, during the rites of birth, marriage and death, healing, initiation for priests and new members, and an annual celebration.
The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye leased an abandoned used car lot in Hialeah in 1986 and announced plans to open a church. The city council reacted with four ordinances, adopted in what the church says was "a mob atmosphere" of denunciation of the Santeria faith.
As the case reached the Supreme Court, the church's lawyers urged the justices to spell out more precisely than they had in 1990 when governments may pass laws that interfere with the religious practices of particular sects.
In the decision nearly two years ago, the court said that, if government undertakes to outlaw a "harmful" practice when the conduct is forbidden for everyone, there is no constitutional violation even though it disrupts a central practice of a religious group.
To reach that decision, which permitted states to ban the use of peyote by anyone, including Indian worshipers, the court's majority embraced a broad new constitutional theory to govern interpretations of the guarantee of free exercise of religion.
Under that theory, legislatures are given wider authority to regulate conduct they consider to be harmful, so long as they do not single out a religious ritual and ban that alone.
Douglas Laycock, University of Texas law professor who is handling the Hialeah church's appeal, said yesterday that the court need not overturn the 1990 ruling to decide in favor of the church, but he said it was "possible to imagine" that decision coming under fire when the court reaches its new decision.
Two new justices have joined the court since the 1990 decision, Justices David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas, and their votes could make a difference.