I love animals as much as the next person — just ask my dog, Sammy, or the baby swallows my wife and I have been protecting (from our dog, among other things) on our front deck.

But I understand that some religious citizens believe it is necessary, on occasion, to kill animals in a ritualistic manner. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has read the Torah (the first five books of what Christians call the Old Testament).

Most Jews, Christians, and Muslims no longer sacrifice animals, although some continue to practice rituals that include killing them in specific ways. For instance, a federal judge recently protected the ability of orthodox Jews in California to practice Kapparot, an ancient atonement ritual associated with Yom Kippur that usually includes the slaughter of chickens.

Court Decisions on Ritualistic Slaughter

The most famous case involving ritualistic slaughter involved practitioners of Santeria, an Afro-American religion of Caribbean origin. More than two decades ago, the city of Hialeah, Florida, attempted to prohibit Santerians from sacrificing animals, even as it allowed animals to be killed for a variety of other reasons. A unanimous Supreme Court declared the ordinance to be unconstitutional in 1993.

Hialeah’s ordinance was clearly unconstitutional because it prohibited animal slaughter in religious contexts while still allowing it in secular contexts. Such ordinances and laws are constitutional only if they are “justified by a compelling interest and [are] narrowly tailored to advance that interest,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy stated when delivering the court’s opinion.

Almost no statute meets this test. Nevertheless, to this day, Louisiana bans the ritualistic slaughter of animals. So, for instance, if you owned a farm in the state, it would be legal for you to slaughter a chicken there under normal circumstances, but not if you did so as part of a religious rite.

Kentucky’s Religious Reptile Ban

The only statute I’m aware of that specifically targets a religious practice and might survive this level of judicial scrutiny is Kentucky’s law against handling “any kind of reptile in connection with any religious service or gathering.” The statute is aimed at prohibiting the rare religious practice (primarily confined to Appalachia) of handling venomous snakes in church services. Presumably, it is legal to handle them for fun or profit!

Because the state has a “compelling interest” in the health of its people (even those who choose to pick up rattlesnakes) this law might be upheld in a court challenge. But the law would be far more defensible if it were neutral with respect to religion — that is, if it simply banned the handling of venomous reptiles in all contexts.

Religiously Neutral Bans on Animal Slaughter

Such neutral laws, especially those regarding the humane treatment and slaughter of animals, may still have the unintended effect of restricting religious citizens’ liberty. For instance, humane slaughter laws in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries have “effectively ban[ned] the ritual slaughter methods prescribed in both Muslim and Jewish tradition,” NPR reports.

In America, because such a law is neutral, it would not violate the First Amendment. Fortunately, many states proactively craft accommodations to protect ritualistic slaughter. These states properly recognize that whatever interest they have in prohibiting animal cruelty, this interest should not override the religious convictions of their citizens.

It is not unreasonable for states to prohibit animal cruelty or to require the humane slaughter of livestock. However, when these laws interfere with the ability of sincere citizens to practice their faiths, legislatures should craft narrow accommodations to protect citizens’ ability to act according to their religious convictions.