The all-Muslim Hamtramck City Council - a mayor and six members - recently voted to allow religious animal sacrifices on residential property.
The vote comes after much lengthy debate and lobbying from observant Muslim community leaders who live in this Detroit-area city (which was initially settled by German farmers and Poles who came to work in the automobile industry) and who observe Eid al-Adha. Eid is a celebration which occurs at the end of Ramadan and remembers “Ibrahim’s devotion to Allah through his willingness to sacrifice his son.” It is also dramatically commemorated by the slaughtering of livestock, and the meat is consumed.
By lifting the previous ban (voted on in December) on ritual animal slaughter, public officials seemed motivated to protect Hamtramck from a costly legal challenge.
“You cannot suppress people’s religious practices because they are [a] minority,” stated Mayor Amer Ghalib.
The public comments during last week’s hearing offered a fascinating glimpse into a community where assimilation - of those whose native land is Yemen, Bangladesh, and Pakistan - is a mixed bag. The meeting featured a score of residents who spoke little or no English and made their case for and against the proposed ordinance in Arabic or Bengali. The majority of the comments were offered by men.
One email, read by City Clerk Rana Faraj, noted: “Prophet Muhammad … never sacrificed animals in his own home; instead he did it in a designated place. We live in a democratic country … decisions that will affect all residents should always be put on the ballot, so that people decide for themselves.”
The new ordinance, according to a copy obtained by the Detroit Free Press, notes that the sacrificial animals must “be killed in a humane way,” and any waste related to the slaughter must be disposed of “in accordance with local, state, and federal law.”
Understandably, the city council’s decision made national news, but many Americans are unaware that the U.S. Supreme Court gave religious animal sacrifice the nod decades ago.
Miami-Dade County, Florida, has been the ground zero for such ‘faith-based’ practices. In 1993, a conservative Supreme Court ruled in the Church of the Lukumi Bablu Aye v. City of Hialeah, that not allowing the killing of animals in a “public or private ritual … not for the primary purpose of food consumption” violated the First Amendment’s Free Exercise Clause.
The Lukumi church had established itself in South Florida – specifically, Hialeah. Its congregants practiced Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion which is a mix of Catholicism, Spiritism, and the Yoruba religion and which is popular in Miami’s Little Havana Cuban exile community. Santeria’s adherents believe in the merits of ritual animal sacrifice (chickens, doves, goats) to “strengthen spiritual forces.” The City of Hialeah’s public officials - all Latinos - were not impressed. On the contrary. The council enacted several ordinances that prohibited possession of animals for sacrifice. A legal battle ensued, and the U.S. Supreme Court eventually and unanimously ruled in favor of the Santero priests.
Notes Oyes.org: “The core failure of the ordinances were that they applied exclusively to the church. The ordinances singled out the activities of the Santeria faith and suppressed more religious conduct than was necessary to achieve their stated ends. The ordinances targeted religious behavior; therefore they failed to survive the rigors of strict scrutiny.”
Fast forward 30 years from when SCOTUS rendered that decision and … Hamtramck.
Towards the close of the packed meeting, only days ago, Mayor Ghalib reminded the Hamtramck audience that the Supreme Court has “told you it’s allowed.” The mayor may be on solid constitutional grounds with his statement, but the practice of religious animal sacrifice in densely-settled areas will still be at odds with mainstream modern culture.
Be they evangelicals, butchers, zoning purists, environmentalists, animal rights advocates, or just the next-door neighbors, folks are right to be squeamish about amateurs managing large squealing animals, disposing of carcasses, and executing cuts.
Dade County itself still struggles with containment. Joggers in Tropical Park, located in West Miami, have complained of finding severed cow tongues, rooster feet, and assorted animal carcasses that have “the characteristics of sacrifices to the gods from the followers of Santeria,” as the Miami Herald reported.
Multiculturalism and unfettered immigration often produce a type of cultural chaos that are not in sync with historic American traditions. And yet, in this instance, they are protected by our Constitution.
Quo vadis? We shall see as the city of Hamtramck begins a bold, possible messy, experiment in religious liberty.
You can find Izzy Lyman on Twitter.