Animal Abuse Under the Guise of Religious Freedom

Posted by Scott Heiser, Director of ALDF's Criminal Justice Program on January 5, 2010

Over the last few days, I have received several inquiries about a Pennsylvania case that has been getting considerable media coverage. The headlines read something like: “Hundreds of Dead Animals Found in Philly Home.” While the media coverage is less than ideal in its lack of legal detail (and we do not yet have access to any of the incident reports), investigators are quoted as saying this appears to be a case where the suspect practiced some form of Santeria (no, not that song by Sublime, but the religion). Unfortunately, the following misleading statement is attributed to the lead investigator in the current media coverage (and I’m paraphrasing here): “There is no law against sacrificing animals for religious purposes as long as it is done humanely.”

That statement is not technically accurate. There is, in fact, a law against killing (sacrificing) animals and it makes no express exception for religious conduct: 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5511. Moreover, Pennsylvania’s “Religious Freedom Protection Act” 71 P.S. § 2401, et seq. does not apply to any of the crimes codified in Title 18 (including animal cruelty). 71 P.S. § 2406(b)(1).

How then can a trained law enforcement professional make such a statement? The answer lies, most likely, in the officer’s understanding of the practical application of the state law in light of the First Amendment’s “free exercise of religion clause.” As the Supreme Court has already noted, in places where animal killings for religious reasons are outlawed (making the religious sacrifices subject to state-imposed sanctions), but other forms of animal killing are tolerated (e.g., for research, eradication of pests, control of the unwanted pet population, hunting, food production–including kosher slaughter), the U.S. Supreme Court will take a dim view of this apparent religious targeting and strike down the criminal law in such a case. And so too, in all likelihood, will a Pennsylvania Court of Common Pleas Judge. In fact, it is highly likely that, assuming the investigation in this PA case actually bares out the fact that the underlying conduct was part of a recognized religious practice, this case wouldn’t get to a jury as the defense has a very strong basis for winning a motion to dismiss on the theory that 18 Pa. Cons. Stat. § 5511 would be “unconstitutional, as applied” on the unique facts of the case.  While not directly on point, the analysis in Merced v. Kasson, 577 F.3rd 578 (5th Cir. Tex. 2009) (PDF) may prove helpful if you want to read more on this topic.

You might ask, how can one reconcile this “unconstitutional, as-applied” outcome with all of those drug cases (e.g., the denial of unemployment compensation to employees fired for using peyote as part of a Native American ritual or those Rastafarians who unsuccessfully defended their marijuana use on religious grounds)? The answer, I believe, flows from two facts: (1) historically it has been easier to articulate compelling governmental interests in regulating the ingestion of compounds that alter one’s personality (ignoring for now the obvious hypocrisy in the legal use of alcohol) and (2) in Anglo-American/Judeo-Christian cultures, animals have been viewed as having been placed on this earth for our use and exploitation, and the courts have mirrored societal/religious views that the rights of human beings to religious freedom should therefore trump animal rights or the interest of the government in deterring animal cruelty, unless a “significant demonstrable harm” can be shown to exist. Overtime, these views will evolve and we (society) will strike a better balance in recognizing the significant and demonstrable harm.

For now, notwithstanding all of the legal obstacles present in a case like this, I remain encouraged by the willingness of PA investigators to continue their work to learn the true facts underlying this case. Only then can an accurate legal assessment of the matter be made.


3 thoughts on “Animal Abuse Under the Guise of Religious Freedom

  1. Toby says:

    Unfortunetly these barbaric practices still exist. I think that animal sacrifice is wrong. I am working on becoming a vegetarian and have almost given up chicken and fish as well as red meat. I still feel that there is a distinct difference between a need for food, and religious sacrifice. We cannot allow this to be acceptable, it is just another form of animal abuse. It should be against the law nationwide. What gives us the right to distinguish the difference between acceptable abuse and inacceptable abuse? It is all the same! What if these cultures or religions feel compelled to allow human sacrifice? We must do what we can to stop these horrible acts.

  2. akzhula says:

    If it is done humanely, what is the difference between killing an animal for a religious ceremony and slaughtering for food?

    I personally think it is wrong to sacrafice animals. I can’t understand why anyone would do this.

    Of course, this does bring up an important question; Is it wrong that we judge other cultures that disagree with American morals as “bad”? I say yes– I say American culture is superior to cultures that torture animals or mutilate women’s genitals or murder girls that don’t wear hijabs or are not virgins.

    This article attacks “judeo-christian” thought as a source of animal abuse, but ironically, every American christian I know of would be appalled at the idea of sacraficing animals. Americans with their western thought spend more money pampering pets and more time worrying about animal cruelty than any other nation. In many other countries, animals are treated like property, the torture or killing or sacrafice means nothing as they are “just animals” in non-western thought.

    A country that respects people’s rights and freedoms is actually more open to helping animals. If a country does not have respect and love for people, how can they love animals?

    Please be careful before you attack parts of this country and its history that are actually on your side, and are forms of thought much more open to your animal welfare ideas than many other nations would be.

  3. Scott Heiser says:

    Thanks for your comment, Akzhula. Sorry you are reading some form of “attack” into this piece. That’s certainly not the intent here. Rather, I was just making an observation about some of the forces that drive the underlying policy decisions (both legislative and judicial) on this issue.

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