Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah

508 U.S. 520 (1993)

Quick Summary

The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. (plaintiff) practices Santeria and challenged Hialeah’s (defendant) ordinances banning their religious animal sacrifices. The case centered on whether these laws violated the Church’s First Amendment rights.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Lukumi, determining that the ordinances were neither neutral nor generally applicable, were designed to suppress Santeria practices, and thus contravened the Free Exercise Clause.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff in this case is the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. (Lukumi), an organization practicing the Santeria religion, which necessitates animal sacrifices as part of its rituals. The defendant is the City of Hialeah, Florida, which enacted several ordinances that effectively prohibited the Church from performing these religious sacrifices.

Lukumi argued that these ordinances violated their First Amendment right to freely exercise their religious practices. The conflict arose when Lukumi announced plans to establish a church in Hialeah, leading to the city’s adoption of ordinances aimed at preventing ritualistic animal sacrifices.

These ordinances defined ‘sacrifice’ in a manner that targeted the practices of Santeria by prohibiting the possession or killing of animals for any ritual not primarily intended for food consumption, with certain exemptions that did not apply to Santeria. The Church filed a lawsuit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming their constitutional rights were being infringed upon by these laws.

Procedural Posture and History

  1. The Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. filed a lawsuit in federal district court against the City of Hialeah.
  2. The district court upheld the city’s ordinances as constitutional.
  3. The United States Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision.
  4. Lukumi then appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which granted certiorari to review the case.

I.R.A.C. Format


Whether the City of Hialeah’s ordinances prohibiting ritualistic animal sacrifices violate the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.

Rule of Law

The First Amendment prohibits government from enacting laws that target religious beliefs or practices unless such laws are neutral and of general applicability, and even then, they must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to advance that interest.

Reasoning and Analysis

The Supreme Court examined whether the ordinances enacted by the City of Hialeah were neutral and generally applicable as required by precedents set in cases such as Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v. Smith. The Court found that the ordinances were neither neutral nor generally applicable, as they were crafted to target Santeria practices specifically.

The wording and application of these laws demonstrated an intent to suppress the religion’s central element of animal sacrifice. The Court also considered the impact of these laws and concluded that they effectively constituted a religious gerrymander that exempted almost all other forms of animal killing while prohibiting Santeria sacrifices.

The Court held that such discriminatory legislation violated the First Amendment because it was not enacted to address a legitimate secular concern separate from inhibiting religious practice.


The Supreme Court invalidated the challenged ordinances and reversed the judgment of the Court of Appeals, holding that the City of Hialeah’s laws were enacted with the objective of suppressing religious belief and therefore violated the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

Key Takeaways

  1. The First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause protects religious practices from laws that are not neutral and generally applicable.
  2. A law targeting religious practices must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and be narrowly tailored to serve that interest.
  3. Municipalities cannot enact laws that effectively discriminate against specific religious practices under the guise of general applicability and neutrality.

Relevant FAQs of this case

What constitutes a law that is not neutral and generally applicable under the First Amendment?

A law that targets specific religious practices or beliefs, or one that has a disparate impact on a particular religious group without a secular rationale for its differential treatment, is not considered neutral and generally applicable. A key factor in such an assessment is whether the law includes exemptions or selective enforcement that favors certain practices over others.

  • For example: A city ordinance that bans the use of loudspeakers except for specific events like sports games, but not for religious gatherings, would likely not be considered neutral and generally applicable.

How does a compelling governmental interest justify restrictions on religious practices?

Restrictions on religious practices may be justified if they serve a compelling governmental interest and are the least restrictive means of achieving that interest. These interests often relate to public welfare concerns such as health, safety, or prevention of discrimination.

  • For example: Mandatory vaccination laws can be considered to have a compelling government interest in preventing disease outbreaks, even if they impact religious objections to vaccinations.

What is the impact of religious gerrymandering on Free Exercise claims?

Religious gerrymandering involves creating laws that have the purpose or effect of excluding religious groups from rights enjoyed by others. It undermines the principles of free exercise by burdening certain religions through tailored legislation.

  • For example: Zoning laws that prevent only specific religious denominations from constructing places of worship in certain areas, while allowing other community buildings, would constitute religious gerrymandering.


Last updated

Was this case brief helpful?

More Case Briefs in Constitutional Law