WASHINGTON -- Mixing wry humor with heavy seriousness, Supreme Court justices suggested yesterday that the city of Hialeah, Fla., probably had been constitutionally clumsy in trying to stamp out the ancient religious ritual of animal sacrifice.
An hour-long hearing on a major case about freedom for religious minorities left the impression that Hialeah would have to start over if it wants to make sure that animal sacrifice is humane and sanitary.
Although the court is not likely to decide the case until late next spring at the earliest, the hints from all across the bench were that most justices do not intend to let government go too far in restricting unpopular religious rituals.
The case involves the 4,000-year-old practice of the Yoba or Yoruba faith: sacrificing animals during rituals for birth, death, marriage, healing and initiation. In south Florida, an apparently growing number of Cuban immigrants seeks to practice Santeria, their version of the ancient sacrificial rituals.
When the Church of Lukumi Babula Aye sought to organize in Hialeah five years ago, a public outcry led the City Council to pass four ordinances flatly banning animal killing -- but only when it is done as a religious sacrifice, not in a slaughterhouse.
The court is looking at the rights of non-mainstream religions for the first time since a 1990 decision, in an American Indian peyote ritual case, that apparently cleared the way for more government controls on "harmful" religious practices.
Yesterday, Justice Antonin Scalia, the author of the 1990 ruling, first asked tough, insistent questions to a lawyer for the animal-sacrifice church, but then turned around and was equally aggressive toward the Hialeah's City Council's attorney, plainly implying that the city had gone to an extreme.
Douglas Laycock, a University of Texas law professor representing the church, likened the broad Hialeah ordinances to an overreaction that a city might have if it had a problem of cars running over small animals. To deal with that problem, he suggested, a city would not have to "ban cars," but simply clean up the sanitation problem.
What Hialeah had done, the professor insisted, was to engage in "religious persecution," targeting only the Santerians.
When Justice Scalia suggested that the ordinances might have been aimed generally at animal killing, not at its use as a ritual, Mr. Laycock said Hialeah had done no such thing.
"What was done here," he said, "was to say you can kill in Hialeah for almost any good reason -- but not for religious reasons."
Hialeah, he argued, acted as it did because it thought ritualistic animal killing unnecessary.
But, he noted, the city had not banned "bow and arrow hunting," which might also involve unnecessary killing.
That prompted Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist to ask rhetorically, without cracking a smile: "Is there a lot of bow-and-arrow hunting in Hialeah?"
Mr. Laycock went on to argue that the only way Hialeah could prove that the church's ritual was unnecessary would be "to prove Santeria is a false religion," which would amount to "a heresy trial."
Although the court had quizzed Mr. Laycock solemnly, it asked laughter-producing hypothetical questions as it explored with Hialeah's lawyer, Richard G. Garrett of Miami, how far the city's ordinances could go.
Early in Mr. Garrett's plea, Justice John Paul Stevens asked: "Suppose one had a sick cat, and just wanted to put it out of its JTC misery; is it unlawful in Hialeah to kill your cat?"
Mr. Garrett said that, if it were done by drowning the cat in the bathtub, it would be illegal, but not if it were given a lethal injection.
Soon, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor was exploring the legality of killing rats and mice by setting traps for them around the house.
Hialeah allows that, Mr. Garrett said.
Justice O'Connor then asked whether one could legally "boil live lobsters?" The lawyer said the local laws had an exception that might sometimes allow that.
Pressed further about the ordinances, Mr. Garrett directly argued that the city should be left constitutionally free to ban animal sacrifice simply as a ritual, whether or not the city could find a way to assure that that was done humanely and without unsanitary consequences.