Baby Goats

On Sunday, December 27, the bodies of hundreds of animals were found in a Philadelphia home. Among the dead were cats, dogs, deer, sheep, goats, and turtles. The animals are believed to have been killed as part of some sort of Santeria rituals. According to the UPI, George Bengal of the Pennsylvania SPCA said Santeria cultists “usually take the skull and the feet and the blood and drain the blood from the animal. They’ll drink the blood and use the skull and feet as part of the altar.” In addition to the staggering number of animal corpses, two emaciated dogs and an AK-47 were found on the property.

The owner of the home — rumored to currently be in Mexico — has not been found. What punishment awaits those responsible for the slaughter of countless animals in the name of religion? Hardly any punishment at all. The caretaker of the two abused dogs faces citations related to lack of veterinary care and unsanitary confinement. Each citation — two for each dog — carries a $750 fine. If it can be proven that cats and dogs were killed, then there may be misdemeanor animal-cruelty charges.

For the most part, animal sacrifice is perfectly legal in the U.S. In 1993, the Supreme Court ruled in the case of Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. Hialeah that sacrificing animals in the name of religion is protected under the First Amendment. It was a unanimous decision. Efforts to curb or restrict animal sacrifice have not been particularly successful in the wake of the 1993 verdict. For example, in the summer of 2009 the right of a Texas Santeria priest to sacrifice animals (usually goats) was upheld by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. According to the Santeria practitioner in the case, Jose Merced, “You cannot do initiations without an animal with four legs. You cannot do it with just chickens. Without that, the religion ceases to exist.”

Santeria is certainly not the only religion to feature animal sacrifice. The Old Testament of Jews and Christians contains frequent references to killing animals in God’s name. Some Muslims sacrifice a sheep to mark the end of the Hajj. Hindus in Nepal recently slaughtered 200,000 buffaloes, goats, chickens and pigeons as part of a religious festival honoring one of their deities. Yet is all this killing and bloodshed morally acceptable just because religion is involved?

In some Chinese Taoist folk tales, after death a person is confronted with the spirits of all the living things — both animal and human — he or she harmed in life. These spirits sit in judgement of the deceased. That is a spiritual tradition I can accept, not one in which “the religion ceases to exist” without killing.

Photo Credit: ynskjen’s photostream on Flickr