Man wins right to sacrifice goats, turtles in Texas

Yes, this is true.

” He’s claiming that his religious beliefs trump all state and local laws related to public health. If he (Merced) claims that his religious beliefs need him to have an elephant in his back yard……then no one could stop that. The law is not designed to allow someone to be a law unto themselves, and that’s what he’s claiming–that he gets to describe the law”, lawyer William McKamie on Mr. Merced.

From the National Post

Animal sacrifices spark religious fight

Texas man wins court ruling upholding faith-based rights

Mary Vallis, National Post Published: Friday, August 14, 2009

Santeria priest Jose Merced is suing the city of Euless for his right to practice his religion, which sometimes involves sacrificing animals. Irwin Thompson/The Dallas Morning News Santeria priest Jose Merced is suing the city of Euless for his right to practice his religion, which sometimes involves sacrificing animals.

Jose Merced seems like an average Texan: He has a good job with an airline, a house in a suburban cul-de-sac, three chihuahuas and strong religious faith.

It is what transpired in a bedroom attached to his garage, however, that piqued his neighbours’ interest about five years ago. Police in Euless, a suburb of Fort Worth, received two anonymous calls warning that Mr. Merced, 46, was preparing to slit a goat’s throat.

When officers arrived at his door in 2004, they learned that for the past 16 years, Mr. Merced had been sacrificing more than goats — ducks, chickens, doves and turtles had all been brought to his door, and killed at the same time in ceremonies for a little-known religion.

A Santeria priest, Mr. Merced sacrifices animals near his home-based shrine to honour deities called orishas. His religious practice is now at the centre of an ongoing court battle with Euless. The city insists Mr. Merced cannot kill animals within city limits. It is attempting to use public health, slaughterhouse and animal cruelty ordinances to stop him. The priest, in turn, fought back with a lawsuit.

With the help of lawyers from Washington, Mr. Merced argues that the city is infringing on his right to practice his faith, which originated in Cuba and combines elements of Roman Catholicism and western African tribal religions, court documents show.

The squabble over freedom of religion in the God-fearing state is now being watched closely by observers all over the world — partly because of the fight over civil rights, but moreso because of the phrase “goat sacrifice,” the priest’s lawyers acknowledge. The case is perhaps best summed up by opening lines of Mr. Merced’s appeals brief: “Goat sacrifice is never going to be popular in Texas. So it is not particularly surprising that the City of Euless wants to prohibit it.”

Since the controversy began, Mr. Merced has received anonymous telephone calls demanding he move away. Strange cars circle his cul-de-sac; lurkers stare at his brick bungalow.

“I don’t know what they were expecting to see — goats tied up in the trees or something?” Mr. Merced said in a telephone interview. “I didn’t come out of a rocket, from the moon or from Mars. The religion exists.”

The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Mr. Merced last week, reversing a lower court ruling. He is now in the clear to sacrifice animals in a ceremony to initiate a new priest, which he has

put off for years because of the case. The ceremony usually features the sacrifice of at least seven lambs or goats, 15 birds and a turtle, which are usually eaten a day after they are killed.

The city plans to file a request today for a new hearing before the appeals judges.

“He’s claiming that his religious beliefs trump all state and local laws related to public health,” said William Mc-Kamie, a lawyer for the city. “If he claims that his religious beliefs need him to have an elephant in his back yard … then no one could stop that. The law is not designed to allow someone to be a law unto themselves, and that’s what Mr. Merced is claiming– that he gets to describe the law.”

———

In their filings, Mr. Merced’s lawyers hint at the irony of the case being fought in such a boldly religious state as Texas, where God-fearing citizens

fiercely protect their rights to free speech, bear arms and hunt wild game. Indeed, Mr. Merced’s court filings note that Euless’s ordinances are not uniformly applied, and make exceptions for the extermination of rodents; the euthanasia of stray animals and veterinary cases; and the hunting of wild hogs. Fishermen and hunters can eat their catches without inspection. To make exemptions on secular grounds while ignoring religious ones is not fair, his lawyers argue.

A police officer who visited Mr. Merced’s home told him he should just go to the grocery store, according to documents filed in court. For practitioners of Santeria, the solution is not that simple — nor is it as simple as making their sacrifices outside of city limits. There are only two Santeria temples in the world. Most priests practise their religion at shrines in their homes. They believe orishas live in the shrines, so sacrifices must be made to them there.

“Most religious beliefs have, at one time or another, or in one place or another, been the minority, and have been misunderstood by the greater society at large,” said Eric Rassbach, a lawyer with The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, which represented Mr. Merced. “Everyone who is an adherent to any kind of faith gains by protecting the minority religions that are out there among us.”

Mr. McKamie acknowledges that his application for the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to hear the case will likely be unsuccessful.

mvallis@nationalpost.com


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