Aztecs Next Door? Freedom and Neighbors
What are the limits of certain rights? If we take the Declaration of Independence at face value, and accept that certain rights are granted by the fact of our existence as humans, including “life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness,” how do we square government limitations on practices that are also protected?
I use the example of Aztecs next door when I talk in class about reasonable limits on certain rights, notably the First Amendment. Setting aside the original definition of established churches, can a government limit or prohibit certain worship practices? If so, why? Or why not?
A bit of back ground on Aztec religion is probably in order, because knowing their cosmology explains some of the practices that their neighbors and the Spanish found to be a bit distasteful, either because of the problem of scale or for other reasons. The call for blood sacrifice is common to all Aztec creation stories, and even Quetzalcoatl offers his own blood, although he does not demand that others’ die for him. The story below is one example:
According to the Aztec creation stories, when the time came for a fifth sun to come into existence, none of the gods wanted to take the part. Becoming the sun involved, among other things, throwing yourself into a fire. When a volunteer was not forthcoming, the gods picked one of their number, Nanahuatl, a deity afflicted with (among other things) a skin disease, and insisted that he take the job. He agreed rather reluctantly, and after undergoing self-torture to purify himself, jumped into the fire, descended to the Land of the Dead and then became the sun. And then he stopped, hovering over the edge of the world and refusing to budge. When the gods told him to move, he refused, having become a lot more powerful than they were. They begged him, to which he replied that he would only do his part if they allowed themselves to be sacrificed and their hearts cut out. They refused and then threatened him, but he destroyed the Morning Star, the spirit sent against him. At this the other spirits gave up and allowed themselves to be sacrificed. Because the gods gave their blood for the lives of all creatures, according to the Aztecs, it was the least humans could do to repay the gift by offering blood and lives to keep the sun fed.
The Aztecs’ other gods also required human lives, as did the gods of the Maya, Toltec, and Inca (on a smaller scale). So too the gods of the Pawnee and other North American groups, but what set the Central American deities apart was the scale of the required sacrifices. We used to think that the Spanish exaggerated when they talked about thousands of people being offered to the gods at a single festival. It turns out that they were correct. And Aztec nobles (and others) made daily blood offerings via techniques I won’t mention here. You can look them up on your own. Suffice it to say that the Aztecs’ neighbors had very good reasons to want to be rid of the Aztec hegemony, and high taxes were not the only cause.
So, what does this have to do with modern government restrictions on rights? What would you do if a group moved into town, got permits for a step-pyramid (or sacred well) and started sacrificing humans to Tlaloc or Tezcatlipoca? They keep the skull rack indoors, and the priest does not wear the flayed skin outside the walls of the holy precinct, but still . . . You would call the police to report a murder. But what if the group is the First Reconstituted Aztec Church (Reformed), duly registered with the IRS et al as a religious group, and they swear that if they do not sacrifice people, the sun will not rise in the morning. And all their “victims” have been willing (or so the chief priests claim, and they have signed hold-harmless forms and legal released stating so.) Your town or city would probably whip up a new law saying that human sacrifice, for any reason, is illegal within municipal limits, and the county would do likewise.
Can that be done? Or does human sacrifice come under the clause of murder (or manslaughter)? What if the victim is willing, supposedly?
Replace human with animal and you have a legal quandary faced by the residents of Hialeah, FL some years back, in a case that ended up at the Supreme Court. A croup of Santeria practitioners, the Church of Lukumi Babaly Aye, wanted to build a new worship facility, school, and museum. Because Santeria requires animal sacrifice, the neighbors of the proposed worship and cultural complex balked, and the City of Hialeah drew up a new ordinance, augmenting extant rules against animal sacrifice that had allowed certain exemptions for kosher and halal slaughter. The new law was so worded that it obviously was an attempt to block the Santeria practitioners. They in turn sued on grounds of infringement of religion and the case went the the Supreme Court (Church of the Lukumi-Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah 508 U.S. 520 (1993).)
(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. [End of Quote]
Having waded through that, you are probably nodding a little in agreement with the Court, even if you find animal sacrifice distasteful, unnecessary, primitive, or cruel. Interestingly, Justice Souter, although in agreement with the majority, pointed out that the Court skipped over the possibility of a law that was broadly applicable and just happened by accident to interfere with worship: which is the case of our (hypothetical) First Reconstituted Aztec Church (Reformed).
Outside of S. M. Sterling and other writers’ imaginations, I really do not think that anyone wants to bring back Aztec traditional worship, even those who call out for the “return” of “Aztlan” to the Indigenous Peoples of the Southwest. In part, I suspect they would suffer unfortunate accidents that their neighbors never happened to see or hear despite taking place in the middle of a block party. I also suspect, uncharitable person that I am, that the would-be neoAztec leaders have zero desire to endure the daily self torture and mutilation required by their desired positions.
But it raises an interesting question. Animal sacrifice is allowed under the First Amendment, because to forbid it interferes with the free exercise of worship. What about human sacrifice?