Animal Cruelty Laws and Religious Objections

A commenter on the goth cat thread wrote:

So there are laws against mutilating non-consenting cats but not against mutilating non-consenting infant humans [alluding to male circumcision]? I suppose you could mutilate cats if that were part of your religion and you had a book from god to prove it?

Another commenter responded, “yes you could — Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah.”

That turns out not to be the right answer. Lukumi Babalu holds only that a government may not selectively ban religious sacrifice of animals precisely because of its religiosity. Under Employment Division v. Smith, there’s no constitutional problem with applying generally applicable animal cruelty bans to religious behavior.

Still, about half the states do generally provide that religious objectors are entitled to exemptions from generally applicable laws, unless denying the exemption is necessary to serve a “compelling government interest.” For more on that, see here (and see also this religious exemption map of the United States). But even under those regimes, it’s possible that courts will find that there’s a compelling government interest in protecting animals against undue pain, and that uniform application of generally applicable cruelty bans — bans that don’t single out religious sacrifice for special restrictions that aren’t applicable to analogous secularly motivated behavior — is indeed necessary to serve that interest.

Here, by the way, is what Justice Blackmun (joined by Justice O’Connor) said about this in Lukumi, discussing his view that the Free Exercise Clause presumptively mandated exemptions from generally applicable laws:

A harder case would be presented if petitioners were requesting an exemption from a generally applicable anticruelty law. The result in the case before the Court today, and the fact that every Member of the Court concurs in that result, does not necessarily reflect this Court’s views of the strength of a State’s interest in prohibiting cruelty to animals. This case does not present, and I therefore decline to reach, the question whether the Free Exercise Clause would require a religious exemption from a law that sincerely pursued the goal of protecting animals from cruel treatment. The number of organizations that have filed amicus briefs on behalf of this interest, however, demonstrates that it is not a concern to be treated lightly.