Educators Closely Watch Exercise-of-Religion Case

By Mark Walsh — November 11, 1992 4 min read

WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week heard arguments in a case involving the free exercise of religion that is being watched closely by educators and church groups.

The case, Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (Case No. 91-948) concerns the Florida city’s regulation of animal sacrifice by adherents of the Santeria religion.

Although it is far removed from education, the case has caught the attention of educators because it marks the Justices’s return to free-exercise law following their controversial 1990 ruling in Employment Division v. Smith.

That decision held that a “neutral, generally applicable law’’ could impose a burden on a religious practice without violating the First Amendment.

Many religious groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs in the Florida case urging the High Court to revisit the Smith decision, which they argue has increased state and local governmental “hostility’’ toward religion.

Some churches that operate private schools and some parents who teach their children at home because of their religious convictions fear that the Smith decision frees government to regulate them far more closely.

“Surveys of [court] cases decided after Smith indicate that its application has resulted in a more thoroughgoing rejection of religious claims than had existed in the previous 20 years,’' the U.S. Catholic Conference says in a brief filed in the Florida case. “This Court should not permit its free-exercise jurisprudence to continue to develop along the lines suggested in Smith.’'

A brief filed by the Home School Legal Defense Association and other groups adds that “the problem with the ‘general applicability’ standard [of Smith] is that general laws are enacted in accordance with the mores of the bulk of the population, frequently without any consideration of their impact on minority religions.’'

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service found that many lower courts have interpreted Smith to require that religious exemptions to general laws be denied in a variety of circumstances.

For example, a federal appeals court last year cited Smith in denying the free-exercise claim of a Kentucky student who was taught at home.

The student sought relief from the state’s equivalency-testing requirement for home-schooled children because his religious beliefs regarded such testing to be unfair and more than “God would want him to bear.’'

A New Mexico state court last year cited Smith in rejecting the free-exercise claim of a church that refused to obtain a state license for its child-care center.

State rules would have prohibited center staff members from spanking children in accordance with the church’s interpretation of the Bible.

Oral Arguments

Despite the suggestions that they use the Santeria case to re-examine Smith, the Justices did not seem inclined to do so based on their questions during oral arguments last week.

Instead, the case may turn on whether Hialeah officials targeted the Santeria church too narrowly when they passed a series of ordinances banning sacrificial or ritualistic killings of animals, a practice central to church adherents during such rites as birth and marriage.

The city cited alleged inhumane methods of killing and public-health problems caused by animal remains being left on streets as the reasons for the laws. The city’s lawyer acknowledged, however, that it does not ban the killing of animals for food.

“You don’t address hunters who kill animals cruelly or dispose of carcasses [improperly], but you do pick upon this religious practice,’' Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said to the city’s lawyer, Richard G. Garrett.

The Justices never strayed far from the facts in the Hialeah case. Whether they intend to use it to clarify the Smith decision will not be known until they release an opinion in the case, which should occur by next July.

Other Action

In separate action last week, the High Court let stand a lower-court ruling that suggests the Randolph Central School District in New York may not pay a cleaning woman less than male custodians who do similar work simply because the woman has not passed a civil-service exam.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled last May that the woman’s lawsuit, based on the federal Equal Pay Act, must go to trial to determine if the school district can justify the difference in pay between her and the custodians based on a factor other than sex.

Three Justices voted to hear the district’s appeal of that ruling in Randolph Central School District v. Aldrich (Case No. 92-202), one short of the four necessary to grant review.

Associate Justice Byron R. White, in a statement joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, said that he would have accepted the case for review because the Second Circuit Court’s ruling conflicts with a related ruling on the application of the Equal Pay Act by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

Meanwhile last week, the High Court also declined to hear an appeal from a group of Illinois residents who contested the U.S. Commerce Department’s decision not to adjust the 1990 census to correct for alleged undercounting.

The group charged that the refusal to adjust the census resulted in lost federal aid, especially for racial minorities and poor people.

The case was Tucker v. U.S. Department of Commerce (No. 92-194).

A version of this article appeared in the November 11, 1992 edition of Education Week as Educators Closely Watch Exercise-of-Religion Case