NEW ORLEANS – A Santeria priest who sued a Texas city for denying him permission to sacrifice a goat as part of a religious ceremony asked a federal appeals court Wednesday to let him resume the ritual in his home.
Jose Merced, 46, accused the city of Euless, Texas, of trampling on his constitutional right to religious exercise, but U.S. District Judge John McBryde sided with the Fort Worth suburb last year and dismissed the Puerto Rico native's claims.
Merced asked the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to overturn McBryde's ruling. A three-judge panel that heard arguments Wednesday did not immediately rule.
The city says animal sacrifices jeopardize public health and violate its slaughterhouse and animal cruelty ordinances.
"It's repulsive, and it has no business in an urban environment," William McKamie, an attorney for the city, said after the hearing.
Judge Rhesa Barksdale asked city attorney Bradford Bullock how Merced's animal sacrifices differ from a hunter bringing home a deer and butchering it.
"What's different is that this man wants to keep live animals in his home, a large number of live animals," Bullock said.
Merced's lawyer, Eric Rassbach, said Merced sacrificed animals at his Euless home for 16 years without incident and is willing to "quadruple bag" the remains and dispose of them in a way that doesn't jeopardize the public's health.
Rassbach, a staff member of The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, described Santeria in court papers as an Afro-Cuban religion with a complex ritual for ordaining priests, including the sacrifice of up to nine four-legged animals, such as lambs or goats, up to 20 chickens or other fowl and a turtle.
McKamie said Merced dumped chicken remains in a stream at least once. He said Merced isn't equipped to handle many animals on his property or dispose of them in a sanitary way.
Merced said two police officers interrupted a ceremony at his home in September 2004 and told him to stop slaughtering animals. Police warned him again in May 2006, after a neighbor complained about a gathering at the house.
Merced asked the city for a permit to slaughter animals at the home, but was told the practice is prohibited. Merced said he hasn't been able to initiate any new priests in the past three years, but hasn't considered leaving Euless.
"Why should I?" he asked outside the New Orleans courtroom. "This is the land of religious freedom."
Bullock said the ordinances outlawing animal sacrifices were passed before Merced's arrival in 1990 and don't discriminate against any individual or group.
"Mr. Merced testified that he was able to practice virtually every other aspect of his religion in his home," Bullock said.
Merced said the city hasn't cracked down on at least 10 other Santeria priests living in town.
"I guess their neighbors are not that nosy," he said.