(Kennedy, J.) Justice Kennedy concluded that the local laws violated the Free Exercise Clause because they were designed to persecute or oppress a religion or its practices.
The Free Exercise Clause provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” “The Free Exercise Clause commits government itself to religious tolerance, and upon even slight suspicion that proposals for state intervention stem from animosity to religion or distrust of it practices, all officials must pause to remember their own high duty to the Constitution and to the rights it secures.” Accordingly, “legislators may not devise mechanisms, overt or disguised to persecute or oppress a religion or its practice.” Under the constitution, a law that is not neutral, but targets a specific action, and that does not apply generally to all people, but targets a specific group, must be justified by a compelling governmental interest and narrowly tailored to advance that interest.
The Court held that the purpose of the laws was to suppress the Santeria religion. The only conduct subject to the ordinances was animal sacrifice, the central element of the Santeria worship services, and they were therefore not neutral. The Court also held that the ordinances were not of general applicability but selectively targeted to conduct motivated by religious belief.
Further the court held that the local laws, which were not neutral or generally applied, were not narrowly tailored to a compelling governmental interest. The interests advanced by the city were protecting the public health and preventing animal cruelty. The Court found, however, that the city failed to establish that these interests were compelling because the ordinances only restricted conduct by the Church and the Santeria religion and not other similar conduct that created the same type of harm. For example, the laws did not prohibit the private slaughter of animals for food or kosher butchering. Further, the Court held that, even if the interests were somehow compelling, they could be achieved by more narrowly tailored laws that burdened religion to a far lesser degree.