WASHINGTON -- The scope of religious freedom in America will be tested in the nation's highest court by an Afro-Caribbean sect whose 4,000-year-old ritual of sacrificing animals is forbidden by laws in South Florida.
The justices agreed yesterday to hear the complaint of followers of the ancient Santeria religion that ordinances in Hialeah, Fla., unconstitutionally permit the killing of animals for food or sport -- but not for religious purposes.
"One can get Chicken McNuggets in Hialeah, but one may not kill a chicken for religious reasons," several mainstream religious groups observed in a legal brief.
It is conservatively estimated that 60,000 people in South Florida are followers of the Santeria religion, which requires the sacrifice of chickens, pigeons, doves, ducks, guinea fowl, goats, sheep and turtles for birth, marriage, death, initiation and other rites.
Often, the animals are eaten, but sometimes the carcasses are left as offerings to Santeria gods and turn up in public places, usually near rivers or canals.
The Santeria religion, also known as Lukumi, Yoba or Yoruba, originated with the Bantu people of Nigeria, many of whom were enslaved and taken to Cuba during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The religion, though forced underground, attracted white believers and came to the United States with Cuban exiles who fled the Castro regime in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
After the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye announced plans to open a Santeria church in Hialeah, Fla., the city passed ordinances in 1987 forbidding the killing of animals for "ritual or ceremony."
The church and one of its priests, Ernesto Pichardo, challenged the ordinances in federal court.