October 24, 2007

A Delicate Balance: The Free Exercise Clause and the Supreme Court

The City of Hialeah and Locke Decisions

Reaffirming the Smith Decision

Despite the political outcry over the Smith opinion, the court reaffirmed the decision’s basic principle three years later. The case, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993), involved a series of ordinances passed by the Florida city in response to the ritual practice of animal sacrifice by practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-Cuban religion that mixes Roman Catholic and indigenous African traditions. The city’s ordinances outlawed the sacrifice or killing of animals in rituals or ceremonies, with specific exemptions for Kosher slaughter or other state-approved activities.

Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993)

Majority:
Blackmun Souter
Kennedy Stevens
O’Connor Thomas
Rehnquist White
Scalia

The Supreme Court’s majority opinion was written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, who had voted with the majority in Smith. In his opinion, Kennedy explicitly reaffirmed the principle in Smith that the Free Exercise Clause does not exempt religiously motivated acts from general laws. Nevertheless, the court ruled against the city, finding that the Hialeah ordinances were discriminatory because they had been carefully crafted to prohibit only the mistreatment of animals for religious purposes. Indeed, the court concluded that the ordinances specifically discriminated against the practitioners of Santeria. For instance, the city had not outlawed killing animals for secular reasons or forbidden practices of animal slaughter performed to satisfy Jewish dietary laws.

Because the ordinances were not general laws, but instead specifically discriminated against the practitioners of Santeria, Kennedy wrote, the compelling interest standard should apply in this case. The court found that the city had no such interest that could justify banning the Santerian practices without similarly banning comparable religious or secular practices.

In separate concurring opinions, three of the justices (David Souter, Harry Blackmun and Sandra Day O’Connor) agreed with the rest of the majority that the Hialeah ordinances violated the Free Exercise Clause. But the three also urged the court to reconsider the rule in Smith, which, they asserted, was an incorrect interpretation of the Free Exercise Clause. In particular, they argued, the Smith ruling was insensitive to religious minorities, inconsistent with precedent and insufficiently protective of religious freedom.

Locke v. Davey (2004)

Majority: Minority:
Breyer Scalia
Ginsburg Thomas
Kennedy
O’Connor
Rehnquist
Souter
Stevens

More than a decade after City of Hialeah, the court was confronted with an example of a law that singled out religion generally rather than a particular faith. In Locke v. Davey (2004), a student challenged a Washington state higher education subsidy that specifically excluded those who were pursing a degree in theology. In a 7-2 decision, the court ruled that the program was constitutional. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice Rehnquist argued that the government was free to include all major fields of study except theology or other devotional religious studies, on the grounds that such studies frequently lead to a career in the clergy. Because the Free Exercise Clause significantly limits government regulation of the clergy, Rehnquist reasoned, the clause similarly permitted the government to refrain from subsidizing this field of study.

The Locke decision reflects the traditional judicial reluctance to interfere in governmental spending decisions.The dissenting justices (Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas), however, criticized the majority opinion in Locke for departing from the traditional requirement that the state be strictly neutral between religion and nonreligious philosophies.

 

Photo credit: Oswald Eckstein/Corbis