Beliefwatch: Slaughter

The ancient Jews did it. So did the Romans and the Aztecs. Sacrificing an animal to please or placate God or the gods has been commonplace for many thousands of years. Still, it's a little bit shocking when we see the practice in our own backyards.

Last spring a Texan named Jose Merced, who also happens to be a Santeria priest, was at home preparing to kill a chicken as part of a religious ritual when the cops came to the door. According to a complaint filed in federal district court last month, the cops told Merced he couldn't sacrifice the chicken without permission from the city of Euless, a suburb near the Dallas airport; city officials, according to the complaint, later denied him a permit. Merced is suing the city for violating his First, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendment rights, saying that blood sacrifice is essential to his religious expression. "There is ... no substitute for the spiritual energy contained in blood," he says in an affidavit. "Without animal sacrifice as taught to us through tradition, Santeria as a set of beliefs and meaningful practices would cease to exist." Last week the city of Euless filed a motion to dismiss the case.

Santeria receives the bulk of the attention given to this issue--including from the Supreme Court, which in 1993 allowed a group of Floridians to continue their sacrifices--but many other Americans ritually slaughter animals as well. The Hmong, of whom there are an estimated 280,000 in this country, traditionally kill a chicken, a pig and a cow as part of a funeral rite: the chicken soul leads the deceased back to his ancestors, the pig is the soul's companion and the cow is "like an umbrella," protection for the journey, explains Txong Pao Lee, executive director of the Hmong Cultural Center, in St. Paul, Minn. Today these killings usually take place in a slaughterhouse with a shaman present, but not always. Muslims around the world make an animal sacrifice on Eid ul-Adha, the holiday marking the end of hajj; most American Muslims pay for an animal to be sacrificed abroad, but a few do it here, on farms. Because of ancient kosher laws, even Jews are sensitive to cases like that of Jose Merced. Rabbi Moshe Elefant, who oversees the rules of kashrut for the Orthodox Union, explains that while Jews have not been permitted to sacrifice animals since the destruction of the Temple, kosher animals are killed the same way today as they were back then. Colonel Sanders, it seems, is the innovator.