Religion cases have been controversial fare for the U.S. Supreme Court in recent days, and the justices are showing no indications of soon backing away from the fray. Last month the high court heard oral arguments in a case pitting New York City against the Hare Krishnas and also announced it would consider the constitutionality of a ban on sacramental animal sacrifices. While both cases involve unorthodox religions with small followings, church/state experts believe the outcomes could have sweeping implications for all churches.

Most closely watched will be Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, which is likely to be argued in the fall. The case began in 1987 when the city council of Hialeah, Florida, passed four ordinances banning the ritual slaughter of animals after adherents of the Santeria religion leased a vacant lot with the intention of beginning a church.

Practiced mainly in the Caribbean, Santeria uses the sacrifice of chickens, goats, pigs, and other animals as a main part of its worship. The city defends its ban on the rituals, contending that the sacrifices could present a danger to public health and safety, could be disturbing to children, and could be construed as cruelty to animals.

However, lawyers for the church say the laws are blatant hostility targeted at a particular religion. “In Hialeah, you can kill animals … just for the fun of it in hunting and trapping and fishing, but you can’t kill an animal in a religious service,” says Douglas Laycock, University of Texas law professor and counsel of record for the church. “If local governments can single out religion for special prohibitions like that, then it’s just a matter of which religions are sufficiently unpopular to bring a city council ...

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