Weighing sacrificial rites
RELIGION | Religious animal sacrifice may raise hackles, but legal experts say it’s protected under the U.S. Constitution
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The Detroit-area city of Hamtramck, Mich., made headlines in January for an odd reason: Its city council voted to allow religious animal sacrifice on residential property.
Among those welcoming the vote was the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Muslims traditionally slaughter animals during Eid al-Adha, or the Holiday of Sacrifice, which commemorates, according to Muslim belief, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael. Hamtramck is majority Muslim, with many residents tracing their roots to Yemen and Bangladesh.
In Hamtramck, the issue came to the forefront last year when the city updated its animal ordinances and recommended adding a ban on animal slaughter. When the proposed ban provoked a backlash from residents, the city council changed course, instead putting forward a new ordinance explicitly permitting animal sacrifice, according to the Detroit Free Press.
The ordinance passed on Jan. 10. Councilwoman Amanda Jaczkowski had previously supported a ban but changed her vote after getting advice from the city attorney, who said banning animal sacrifices would invite a civil rights lawsuit.
Strange as it sounds, it’s not the first U.S. conflict over animal sacrifice—an issue legal experts say is rooted in constitutional rights. A 1993 Supreme Court decision upheld the right of the Santería religion—an African diasporic religion that developed in Cuba—to conduct animal sacrifice.
The killing of animals is legal in various secular contexts. Thomas C. Berg, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law, noted that under the Constitution the government is permitted to restrict religious practices in some cases. “But if the law in question allows similar behavior for nonreligious reasons, then it must allow religious behavior as well unless banning it is absolutely necessary,” he said.
Another example of animal sacrifice in America is the Orthodox Jewish tradition of Kapparot, which involves sacrificing chickens on the eve of Yom Kippur. In fact, a halal butcher (one who prepares meat according to Islamic law) in Hamtramck slaughtered 800-1,000 chickens for a nearby Jewish congregation in 2015. The slaughterhouse normally used by Congregation Bais Chabad was unavailable, so they chose a halal butcher instead. The U.S. Department of Agriculture tried to block the arrangement, saying the butcher first needed to be kosher certified. But the agency granted an exception after the Jewish congregation complained the butcher couldn’t be certified in time for the religious holiday.
At the Jan. 10 Hamtramck council meeting, residents and animal-rights activists expressed concerns about animal cruelty and sanitation risks.
Ashley Byrne, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), appeared on Fox News to condemn the vote: “We have to think about the fact that children are often exposed to these religious rituals. These animals’ throats are slashed and their heads are manually torn from their bodies.” She added that many Muslims and others who formerly engaged in animal sacrifice have developed alternatives.
Hamtramck is relevant to Christians, Berg noted, because the same First Amendment rules that protect religious sacrifice also protect Christian foster-care agencies and wedding vendors: “First Amendment protections for different faiths stand or fall together.”
—This story has been corrected to reflect that Eid al-Adha, according to Islamic belief, commemorates Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice Ishmael.
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