Is Santeria legal in the United States?

This is not a trick question, the answer is yes. However, this next question is trickier: Could it be made illegal? According to the United States Supreme Court…maybe? Probably not? But try harder if you want to find out.

Like all of our liberties, freedom of religion in America  is contingent–primarily on what a handful of unelected judges think its limitations should be.

Put that way, it’s actually kind of amazing that the system isn’t more fucked up than it is already. But, as with my OK Cupid profile during my dating years, there is yet infinite capacity for error.

The highest court considered the question of ritual animal sacrifice in the 1993 case of Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye v. Hialeah.

By way of confession, I was reading about this because Satanic Temple lawyer Stu de Haan referenced it this week while discussing the Temple’s ritual abortions. I guess it’d be a better news peg if I was talking about that rather than this, but sometimes you’ve gotta just go where the Unholy Spirit moves you.


santeria satanism sacrifice

Sometimes the movement is more animated than others.


According to the US federal courts site:

“The Santeria religion is considered by some a fusion between the religion of the Yoruba people of Western Africa and significant elements of Roman Catholicism. One of the principal forms of devotion in Santeria is animal sacrifice performed at birth, marriage, and death rites; for the cure of the sick; for the initiation of new members and priests; and during an annual celebration. The sacrificed animal is cooked and eaten at some ceremonies.”

The Florida-based Church of the Lukumi-Babalu wanted to build a temple in the city of Hialeah, but this ran contrary to the city government’s newly established policy of not letting them do that. As you can imagine, it was hard to find middle ground between those two positions.

Apparently just smart enough to realize that they could not constitutionally bar a house of worship just cuz, Hialeah’s city council decided to outlaw Santeria by proxy by outlawing ritual animal slaughter.

This would be like outlawing daily prayer for Muslims, or rampant criminal conspiracy for Catholics–there’s just not much practice to practice after that.

When it came time to rule on the dispute, the Supremes threw out the town’s arguments, with chronic attention-seeker Anthony Kennedy writing that “religious beliefs need not be acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible to others” to afford legal protections.

Particularly damning in Kennedy’s eyes was a public meeting in which a police chaplain told city lawmakers that Santeria was “an abomination” and “the worship of demons” and insisted that Hialeah “not permit this church to exist.” Which, fucking hell man, tell us what you really think.

An Associated Press story about the case included a bit of side fuckery by alleging that the church was “linked to a sadistic drug-smuggling cult” and ritual murders in Mexico. Which, the fuck, can we get some follow-up on that please? I know they call you a wire service, but don’t leave us dangling here.

Turns out this was a reference to the 1989 murder of college student Mark Kilroy by a drug outfit in Matamoros. The supposed “link” refers to the apparently ritualistic means that the gang used to kill Kilroy and 14 others, which investigators referred to as “Voodoo” or Satanism or black magic, depending on which way the wind blew.

Anthropologist Thomas Green’s essay “Accusations of Satanism & Racial Tensions” points out that the gang’s practices were closer to Palo Mayombe, a different Afro-Cuban tradition, and also that ritual murder is not really supposed to be part of any of those practices.


santeria satanism sacrifice

You know when your skulls come out of the wash but you just leave them in a pile because you’re too lazy to put it all away?


But Texas cops at the height of the Satanic Panic were not much interested in these distinctions. If a religion was weird, scary, and foreign, it was the work of the devil.

Fundy fraud John Ramirez makes a whole career out of this bit, billing himself as a (stop me if you’ve heard this one) ex-Satanic high priest turned to Jesus. What he actually describes in his lectures is Santeria, but that’s okay, because Ramirez says the devil invented Santeria. How does he know this? The devil told him. Airtight.

A 1990 brief from California’s Office of Criminal Justice lumped Santeria, Palo, witchcraft, and Satanism together under the vague heading of “occult crime.” The religious conspiracy scare site Exposing Satanism is still beating this dead horse (goat?) today, warning unwary readers that “illegal’s” [sic] are moving into America to commit ritual sacrifices. To be fair, lots of people relocate for career-related reasons.

Even Hollywood gets in on this: In the 1997 film The Devil’s Advocate, Satan himself intervenes with legal help for a Santeria priest accused of illicit ritual slaughter.

Keanu Reeves and his truly improbable southern accent spring him on constitutional grounds, thus establishing religious freedom arguments as the work of the devil. The movie even has the priest work some black magic on the prosecutor for good measure.

It’s hard to imagine that Florida town would have been as hot to outlaw one specific church if they hadn’t associated it with Satanism, foreignness, and sinister people of color.

It certainly wasn’t the animal slaughter they objected to: They carved out an exception in the law for kosher slaughter and for every other possible act of animal cruelty, including feeding live rabbits to racing dogs. Which feels like just trolling at that point.

Now here’s the catch: SCOTUS did intervene, but as usual the decision was conditional. The problem here was not that the city tried to suppress a minority religion for transparently racist and theologically based reasons–the happily late Antonin Scalia wrote a concurrence specifying that the prejudice itself was not the crime.

Rather, the fault was that they went too far within the bounds of their stated purpose. Now I’m not a fancy big city lawyer, nor am I on the city council of any Florida town–gratefully.

But if I was, I’d read that as: Persecute the heretics if you like. But you’ve got to give us deniability.


santeria satanism sacrifice

Crawley get down from there, that one’s a rental.