Many people are very unhappy with a recent decision of the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, Merced v. Kasson, in which the court enjoined officials of the city of Euless, Texas from enforcing various ordinances to stop Santería practitioners from performing animal sacrifices using goats, lambs, and other animals, including ducks, chickens, and guinea hens. The Santería practitioners offer animal blood to deities and then cook and consume at least part of some of the animals. The federal court did not decide the case under the federal Constitution but under a state law guaranteeing freedom of religion (although the decision would probably have been the same if the matter were analyzed under the federal Constitution).
The moral issue involved in this case is similar to the one presented in the Michael Vick case. To the extent that there are differences, this case is actually stronger than the Vick case. In Euless, it is explicitly legal for individuals to kill “domesticated fowl considered as general tablefare such as chicken or turkey.” In response to the argument that butchering a larger animal such as a goat might present health problems, the court pointed out that large animals, such as deer, may be butchered and disposed of in Euless as long as they are dead when brought into the city.
So if you kill “domesticated fowl” because you want to eat them, that’s fine. If you kill them because you want to offer them to a diety (and then eat them), then that’s not fine. If you kill a deer outside of Euless and bring it into Euless to butcher it, that’s fine. If you kill and butcher the goat in Euless as part of a religious ceremony, that’s not fine.
This, of course, is nonsense.
Please do not misunderstand me. As a vegan for 28 years and as someone who embraces the principle of Ahimsa, or non-violence, I certainly do not approve of Santería sacrifices any more than I approve of dogfighting. (By the way, in 1983, I represented the ASPCA in New York City when it was sued by a local group of Santería practitioners. I believe that this was the first Santería case ever brought in the United States. The ASPCA won in the trial court and I successfully defended that decision before the New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division.)
But for those people who are not vegans and who object to Santería sacrifices or dogfighting, my question is “why”? Michael Vick enjoyed sitting around his backyard dog pit watching dogs fight; non-vegans enjoy sitting around their backyard barbecue pit roasting the flesh of animals who have been tortured as much as have been Vick’s dogs. Non-vegans in Euless, Texas, are consuming animal products from sentient beings who have been raised and slaughtered in conditions of torture and they are even permitted to kill their own chickens, turkeys, and other domesticated fowl.
So what are the Santería practitioners doing that is any different from any other non-vegan in Euless, Texas, or anywhere else?
The answer is, of course, nothing.
Indeed, the best justification that non-vegans have for inflicting suffering and death on 53 billion animals every year for food (not including fish) is that they taste good. We do not need to eat animals to be optimally healthy and animal agriculture is an environmental disaster. The Santería practitioners believe that animal sacrifice is necessary for spiritual reasons. They actually have a better reason for animal exploitation than most non-vegans do.
Again, please do not misunderstand me. I am not saying that animal sacrifices are morally justifiable or excusable; I am just saying that the justification used by Santería practitioners is, on its face, stronger than what non-vegans have to say when asked to justify their consumption of animal products.
So for those of you who aren’t vegan but are upset by Merced v. Kasson, ask yourself why you are upset. Ask yourself why you think that your behavior is any more defensible than that of the Santería practitioners.
And if you are vegan and your friends or family tell you that although they are not vegan, they agree with you that Santería sacrifices (or dogfighting) are terrible, use that comment as an opportunity to have a sincere discussion with them about why they think that they regard these practices as terrible and what differences they see between their own behavior and that of the Santería practitioners.
The reality is that most people—or at least many people—do care about animal suffering and death. They sincerely believe that dog fighting and Santería practices are wrong. That is precisely why people react in the way that they do to these things. But that is precisely why I believe that if we engage in creative, non-violent vegan education, we can persuade many people to see the confusion in their own thinking about animal ethics and to move in the vegan direction.
Gary L. Francione
© 2009 Gary L. Francione