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Religious Expression and the Criminal Justice System: Where the Line is Drawn Between an Act Being a Protected Ritual and a Crime

Religious freedom is one of the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. The ability to worship (or not worship) in the way that one believes is right for oneself is held paramount in the United States. Generally, the religious freedoms debate only comes up as associated with free speech and expression; largely when there are protests or signage that is being displayed in public areas. However, there are certain situations where religious freedom comes toe-to-toe with the criminal justice system and the courts must assess whether the actions of a person can be protected under freedom of religion and religious expression, or if the actions constitute a crime.

Florida’s Constitutional Protection of Religious Expression

On the evening of the blue moon (a blue moon is where there are two full moons in one month), a Florida woman and her two adult sons were killed as what was designated a “Wicca ritual killing” by the police. This is not the first time, nor will it be the last, where ritual sacrifice has been at the topic of public debate, determining whether it is protected by the Constitution. According to the Florida Constitution, religious freedom (and its free exercise) is protected by the Constitution (of Florida, and of the United States); however, the Constitution continues further that religious practices will not be protected if they are inconsistent with public safety, peace, or public morality.

Wicca Ritual Killing and Other Types of Harm Not Protected

Any human sacrifice, murder, or any type of harm to another is considered to be inconsistent with public safety, public morality, and peace. In the case of the sacrifice ritual and the brutal murders of the mother and her two sons, the ritual will not be protected and the perpetrator will face criminal charges and criminal proceedings.

Difficulty in Assessing Whether Practice is Protected: Look to Case Law

The line can be easily drawn when it comes to public safety. Any actions that result in the serious harm or death of another will not be protected. But what about actions that are considered inconsistent with peace or public morality? With morality being an undefined gray area in our society and with each person defining where the moral lines are drawn, it may be difficult or sometimes impossible to determine if one’s religious actions will land them in prison.

Florida Example Where Religious Practice of Animal Sacrifice, Otherwise Illegal, Protected

For example, it is considered against public morality to do a ritual animal sacrifice. There are laws in Florida that prohibit the practice of animal cruelty or harm to animals. However, the United States Supreme Court ruled in the case of Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah that the city’s ban on ritual animal sacrifice was a violation of the religious freedom of the church members to sacrifice animals, as the sacrifice is an integral ritual within the religion. The justices on the court reiterated that just because a law or regulation made the practice of a religion difficult (or even impossible), if the law is neutral and applied generally, then the law can still be considered constitutional. In this case, however, the city was attempting to ban the ritual animal sacrifice not because of animal cruelty, but as an attempt to limit and halt religious expression.

Experienced Criminal Defense Attorney in Fort Lauderdale

In Florida, religious expressions are generally protected, but there could be situations where a religious practice is not protected and you may find yourself arrested for a criminal offense. An experienced criminal defense attorney like Kevin J. Kulik can help you parse through the differences and see if an affirmative defense may be used to protect you from criminal prosecution. Contact Kevin J. Kulik today for a free and confidential consultation in the Fort Lauderdale area.

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