US Supreme Court Decisions

Recognizing Wicca and Santeria as Religions Under the Constitution

Dettmer v. Landon

The case was Dettmer v. Landon. A 29 year old inmate incarcerated at the Powhatan Correctional Center in State Farm, Virginia claimed that his First Amendment right to the free exercise of his religion, the Church of Wicca, was violated by prison officials who refused to give him any access to his religion's worship materials. Prison officials said that the worship materials that Dettmer sought --candles; a statue; a white robe; incense; and either sulfur, sea salt, or un-iodized salt would be hazardous to prison security. The prison officials also claimed that the Church of Wicca is not a religion entitled to First Amendment protection.

During the time from 1983-1985, Dettmer repeatedly sought permission to obtain the certain items (stated above), and the prison officials, understandably sensitive to potential security problems, denied each request, asserting that the items posed a threat to the security of the institution. For example, the prison officials stated that the incense could be used to mask the odor of drugs, a statue could be used as a weapon, sulfur could be used to make gunpowder, and a hooded robe could be used to hide a prisoner's face in an escape attempt.

Recognizing that the prison officials had legitimate security concerns with several of the items, Dettmer consulted his religious leaders and offered to substitute sea salt or unionized salt for the sulfur, to remove the hood from the robe, and to use a plastic statue rather than a wooden or ceramic one. (If you notice, Dettmer didn't fight for the right to have an Athame because he realized that such an item could not be kept within a prison facility.) However, despite Dettmer's efforts to provide a workable solution, and even though officials never questioned the sincerity of Dettmer's beliefs, the prison still denied Dettmer's access to the items. At the same time, prisoners worshipping more conventional religions such as Catholicism and Hinduism were given access to candles, incense, and crosses, and all prisoners were routinely given access to bathrobes and boxing robes.

Throughout this trial, the Court had to determine whether the Church of Wicca is a religion for purposes of the First Amendment. Because religion is so highly personal and private, dealing with spiritual rather than temporal matters, courts have traditionally been reluctant to examine and pass judgment upon these beliefs. However, when confronted with a dispute between religious conviction and the needs of the state, courts have a duty to make at least some inquiry into the nature of the faith to ensure that purely secular beliefs and practices are not accorded the special protection afforded by the First Amendment. The courts have ruled though that the belief in a religion is different from the actions of a religion. (Ex. If a religion believed in killing a person at least one time during your life, obviously, the courts are not going to allow this. You may believe in it, but acting is different from believing.)

A decision was then reached: "Members of the Church of Wicca sincerely adhere to a fairly complex set of doctrines relating to the spiritual aspect of their lives, and in doing so they have 'ultimate concerns' in much the same way as followers of more accepted religions. Their ceremonies and leadership structure, their rather elaborate set of articulated doctrine, their belief in the concept of another world, and their broad concern for improving the quality of life for others gives them at least some facial similarity to other more widely recognized religions. While there are certainly aspects of Wiccan philosophy that may strike most people as strange or incomprehensible, the mere fact that a belief may be unusual does not strip it of constitutional protection. Accordingly, the Court concludes that the Church of Wicca, of which the plaintiff is a sincere follower, is a religion for the purpose of the free exercise clause."

The second part of the decision, though not actually dealing with the foundation of Wicca legally, is now discussed here. This decision was made in response to whether Dettmer should have the items at anytime that he requests.

In 1985, the District Court found that Dettmer shall have the items he requested. The prison officials, unsettled by this part of the decision, appealed this case and in 1986, the case was heard by the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals. Judge J. Butzner then affirmed in part and reversed in part the decision of the District Court. He reaffirmed the fact that Wicca is a religion but denied Dettmer the right to have the items he requested based on the fact that even though those prisoners of more conventional religions had incense, candles, and whatnot in their services, none of the prisoners ever touched them, the preacher or minister always handled them, and never the prisoners themselves.

If you want to get the above information in full, go to your local law library and ask for the Federal Supplement #617, p. 592-597 for the first case Dettmer v. Landon 1985, and for the Federal Supplement #799, p. 929-934 for the appealed case Dettmer v. Landon 1986.


Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah


The case Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah was a landmark decision that declared any law specifically concerning a certain religion unconstitutional. This case dealt with a Hialeah, Florida restricting the sacrifice rituals of the religion of Santeria. The Supreme Court declared this law unconstitutional on the grounds that it specifically dealt with a religion. This is different from the Oregon case Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith that restricted the Native

American's use of peyote because of the fact it was an "across the board" law that declared it illegal for anyone to use, not specifically the Native Americans. If you would like an interesting quote, look at the lines I have highlighted. Now here's the case itself:

Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah No. 91-948 SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES Nov. 4, 1992 June 11, 1993 508 U.S. 520

Syllabus Petitioner church and its congregants practice the Santeria religion, which employs animal sacrifice as one of its principal forms of devotion. The animals are killed by cutting their carotid arteries, and are cooked and eaten following all Santeria rituals except healing and death rites. After the church leased land in respondent city and announced plans to establish a house of worship and other facilities there, the city council held an emergency public session and passed, among other enactments Resolution 87-66, which noted city residents' "concern" over religious practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety, and declared the city's "commitment" to prohibiting such practices; Ordinance 87-40, which incorporates the Florida animal cruelty laws and broadly punishes "[w]hoever . . . unnecessarily or cruelly . . . kills any animal," and has been interpreted to reach killings for religious reasons; Ordinance 87-52, which defines "sacrifice" as "to unnecessarily kill . . . an animal in a . . . ritual . . . not for the primary purpose of food consumption," and prohibits the "possess[ion], sacrifice, or slaughter" of an animal if it is killed in "any type of ritual" and there is an intent to use it for food, but exempts "any licensed [food] establishment" if the killing is otherwise permitted by law; Ordinance 87-71, which prohibits the sacrifice of animals, and defines "sacrifice" in the same manner as Ordinance 87-52; and Ordinance 87-72 which defines "slaughter" as "the killing of animals for food" and prohibits slaughter outside of areas zoned for slaughterhouses, but includes an exemption for "small numbers of hogs and/or cattle" when exempted by state law. Petitioners filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. 1983, alleging violations of their rights under, inter alia, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Although acknowledging that the foregoing ordinances are not religiously neutral, the District Court ruled for the city, concluding, among other things, that compelling governmental interests in preventing public health risks and cruelty to animals fully justified the absolute prohibition on ritual sacrifice accomplished by the ordinances, and that an exception to that prohibition for religious conduct would unduly interfere with fulfillment of the governmental interest, because any more narrow restrictions would be unenforceable as a result of the Santeria religion's secret nature. The Court of Appeals affirmed. HELD: By the Supreme Court, the judgment is reversed. 936 F.2d 586, (CA 11 1991) reversed. Opinions JUSTICE KENNEDY delivered the opinion of the Court with respect to Parts I, IIA-1, II-A-3, II-B, III, and IV, concluding that the laws in question were enacted contrary to free exercise principles, and they are void. (a) Under the Free Exercise Clause, a law that burdens religious practice need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest if it is neutral and of general applicability. Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 . However, where such a law is not neutral or not of general application, it must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny: it must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest. Neutrality and general applicability are interrelated, and failure to satisfy one requirement is a likely indication that the other has not been satisfied. (b) The ordinances' texts and operation demonstrate that they are not neutral, but have as their object the suppression of Santeria's central element, animal sacrifice. That this religious exercise has been targeted is evidenced by Resolution 87-66's statements of "concern" and "commitment," and by the use of the words "sacrifice" and "ritual" in Ordinances 87-40, 8752, and 87-71. Moreover, the latter ordinances' various prohibitions, definitions, and exemptions demons

Ordinances 87-40, 87-52, and 87-71 are substantially underinclusive with regard to the city's interest in preventing cruelty to animals, since they are drafted with care to forbid few animal killings but those occasioned by religious sacrifice, while many types of animal deaths or kills for nonreligious reasons are either not prohibited or approved by express provision. The city's assertions that it is "self-evident" that killing for food is "important," that the eradication of insects and pests is "obviously justified," and that euthanasia of excess animals "makes sense" do not explain why religion alone must bear the burden of the ordinances. These ordinances are also substantially underinclusive with regard to the city's public health interests in preventing the disposal of animal carcasses in open public places and the consumption of uninspected meat, since neither interest is pursued by respondent with regard to conduct that is not motivated by religious conviction.

Ordinance 87-72 is underinclusive on its face, since it does not regulate nonreligious slaughter for food in like manner, and respondent has not explained why the commercial slaughter of "small numbers" of cattle and hogs does not implicate its professed desire to prevent cruelty to animals and preserve the public health. (d) The ordinances cannot withstand the strict scrutiny that is required upon their failure to meet the Smith standard. They are not narrowly tailored to accomplish the asserted governmental interests. All four are overbroad or underinclusive in substantial respects because the proffered objectives are not pursued with respect to analogous nonreligious conduct, and those interests could be achieved by narrower ordinances that burdened religion to a far lesser degree. Moreover, where, as here, government restricts only conduct protected by the First Amendment and fails to enact feasible measures to restrict other conduct producing substantial harm or alleged harm of the same sort, the governmental interests given in justification of the restriction cannot be regarded as compelling.


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