Supreme Court upholds 'hate crime' statute Second decision protects unpopular religious practices

June 12, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- A unanimous Supreme Court gave states and cities broad, clear-cut power yesterday to take strong measures, including severe punishment, against a modern wave of violence stemming from race, religion, and sex bias.

In a second 9-0 decision, the court sternly warned local government officials not to give in to religious prejudice. The justices provided sturdy new constitutional protection for the unusual, quaint or unpopular practices of minority religions, including animal sacrifice.

Together, the decisions -- two of the most important the court will make in the term it soon will finish -- amounted to a broad and sometimes eloquent judicial manifesto against persecution.

The court upheld, without a hint of disagreement among the justices, a Wisconsin "hate crime" law that adds extra punishment when a crime is aimed intentionally at someone because of the victim's race, religion or sex. Quoting the most famous figure in English legal history, 18th-century jurist Sir William Blackstone, the court said:

"It is but reasonable that among crimes of different natures, those should be most severely punished which are destructive of the public safety and happiness."

The court said that "hate crimes" may "provoke retaliatory crimes, inflict distinct emotional harms on their victims, and incite community unrest," and that states are free to deal with "these perceived harms."

In striking down four local laws in Hialeah, Fla., aimed at stamping out animal sacrifices by a religious sect that traces its beliefs back some 4,000 years, the court remarked:

"The laws were enacted by officials who did not understand, failed to perceive, or chose to ignore the fact that their official actions violate the nation's essential commitment to religious freedom."

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy repeated that sentence orally as he announced the decision.

Although the result was unanimous, the reasoning was so widely splintered that one key section of Justice Kennedy's opinion appeared to have only his support and that of Justice John Paul Stevens.

The differing constitutional positions revealed anew the deep difficulty the current court sometimes gets into when it faces a major dispute about government and religion.

Even so, the result was clear: Government officials were put on explicit notice that they take constitutional risks if they join in any private effort to run out of town an unpopular religious minority.

But it was not clear whether the decision would provide protection for all kinds of non-mainstream religious practices, such as smoking marijuana as a faith ritual.

The decision left city officials with options to try to justify general laws against specific practices, if those laws are neutral and apply to everyone, not just religions.

The court hinted, for example, that cities might pass general laws against cruelty to animals, and two justices said specifically that such laws had not been ruled out by the new decision.

'Santeria' religion

Yesterday's ruling did seem to clear the way for the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye to open a church in Hialeah and publicly practice "Santeria," which means "the way of the saints" and includes the sacrifice of small animals in a variety of rituals that Santerians believe are necessary to keep alive their guiding spirits, called "orishas."

The case was watched closely to see whether the court would abandon a controversial decision it made three years ago that allowed government to outlaw "harmful" practices even if those had the side effect of forbidding some splinter religion's practices.

That decision had permitted states to forbid the use of peyote, a mood-altering substance that is used as a central part of the worship of the Native American Church -- so long as the ban applied to everybody who used peyote, for whatever reason.

Six justices appeared to rely on that 1990 decision yesterday as part of their reasoning for nullifying the Hialeah ordinances. Three justices -- Harry A. Blackmun, Sandra Day O'Connor, and David H. Souter -- wrote in separate opinions that the court should reconsider and perhaps cast aside that 1990 decision, on the theory that it poses a threat to the religious practices of minority faiths.

The difficulty the court had reaching a decision in the Hialeah rTC was not matched in the separate ruling on "hate crimes." In fact, the laws affected by the second ruling did not appear to have tested the court's sometimes competing ideological alliances.

Although that ruling is the most significant one to be issued by the court in the wake of passage by 46 states (including Maryland) of special laws to deal with crimes based on bias, the opinion by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist was a scant 12 pages long and emerged after less than two months of study.

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