Merced v. Kasson

“Ask not why I defend goat sacrifice. Ask me how you can too.”  
-Eric Rassbach, Vice President & Senior Counsel at Becket 

An ancient religion carries out a unique tradition 

Jose Merced is a priest in the Santeria faith, an Afro-Caribbean religion with roots that go back centuries in West Africa, and later evolving into new forms in Cuba and the Americas. Central to the Santeria religion is the passing on of rituals and beliefs from generation to generation. One of these sacred rituals includes animal sacrifice, which is performed humanely and privately for worship, healing, or the initiation of new priests.

As a Santeria priest, Mr. Merced regularly carried out these sacred religious rituals within his home in Euless, Texas. But in 2006, city officials tried to stop him from practicing his religion, threatening the very existence of the Santeria faith.

Religious liberty means protecting people of all faiths—including minority faiths 

In 2006, officers from the City of Euless, Texas appeared at Mr. Merced’s home and informed him he could not perform his religious rituals in his own home, claiming that his practices violated city ordinances.

Becket stepped in, with Douglas Laycock (Robert E. Scott Distinguished Professor at the University of Virginia School of Law), to represent Mr. Merced at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. Although the government argued two reasons for forbidding the practice—public health and animal treatment— Becket pointed out that the city had never enforced their ordinances against Mr. Merced in 16 years, and that the city had broad secular exemptions to these ordinances, such as hunting, fishing, meat production, pest control, and veterinary euthanasia. In fact, the city was selectively enforcing its ordinances against Mr. Merced because of his religion.

Fifth Circuit rules for Santeria priest 

On July 31, 2009, a unanimous panel of the Fifth Circuit sided with Becket. The court said that city ordinances forbidding the slaughter of certain animals prevented the Santeria priest from performing ceremonies essential to his faith, which was a substantial burden on his religious exercise. The court pointed out that Mr. Merced had conducted these rituals for 16 years without incident, and that the government had other ways to protect public health and animal treatment without forbidding Mr. Merced from practicing his religion in his home.

The Fifth Circuit’s ruling was an important ruling under the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, protecting the right to worship freely in one’s own home.

Importance to religious liberty

  • Individual freedomReligious freedom includes the freedom to practice one’s faith in all areas of life, both public and private, free of government interference.  
  • Minority religions: Minority religions are particularly at risk of religious liberty violations, but government has no right to selectively target minority faith practices because they are unusual or unpopular. Protecting minority religious beliefs and practices is critical for strengthening the fundamental principle of religious freedom: that all human beings must be free to seek the truth and live out their convictions.