Last week, Brazil’s federal police conducted raids in seven states and arrested dozens of people who were allegedly involved in a bribery scheme to circumvent regulatory standards in the country’s industrial meat processing plants. While Brazilians are outraged about the extremely low-quality meat that makes it to their tables, few seem to be questioning the way that animals are slaughtered in the process. Consumers have never expressed such widespread and vocal concern over whether or not cattle are mistreated or if breeding and slaughter practices follow Brazil’s Animal Protection Law.

However, when it comes to animal slaughter during religious rituals, objections are being taken all the way to Brazil’s Supreme Court. Under the protection of a crucifix hanging in the courtroom, Supreme Court justices will determine if the use of animals in Afro-Brazilian religious rituals violates Brazil’s Constitution, which bans cruelty to animals in Article 225. Since the constitution also guarantees the free exercise of religion, the case has rekindled debate over the state’s authority to impose restrictions on religious practices.

“What I would say is that public opinion never associates commercial slaughter with cruelty, and that intolerance provokes religious slaughter to be associated with sacrifice. To put an end to religious slaughter, we would have to put an end to all types of slaughter,” said Hédio Silva Jr. in an interview with The Intercept. Silva, a jurist, participated in a commission of representatives of Afro-Brazilian religions that recently delivered an amicus brief to the court.

The Animal Protection Law defines cruelty as when an animal is not killed quickly and free of prolonged suffering, regardless of whether or not it is destined for human consumption. In Afro-Brazilian practice, the religious slaughter of animals is done by slitting the throat, a method recognized as humane by Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture.

“In religious slaughter, the animal is not mistreated. We sacralize the animal and then consume it for food. We do not sacrifice; [industrial meat processor] Friboi sacrifices,” said Ivanir de Santos, an Afro-Brazilian religious leader (in Portuguese, a “babalorixá”) who is a member of the Commission to Combat Religious Intolerance. Slaughter is part of a liturgical commandment in the Afro-Brazilian religions Candomblé and Umbandaand adherents often consume animals used in rituals.

The case in question was brought to the Supreme Court by the public prosecutor in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. It challenges the constitutionality of a state law that exempts practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions from prosecution for the mistreatment of animals and from a prohibition on religious animal sacrifice. The prosecutor is asking for the law with the exemptions to be annulled.

If the court judges the state law to be unconstitutional, the decision would conflict with Article 5 of Brazil’s Constitution, which guarantees freedom of belief for religious groups. It would also be a step backward in time, a return to when spiritist religions in Brazil, such as Kardecism, had their meetings interrupted by the police. Or, going back further still, to when slaves were prohibited from worshipping “orixás,” the deities of Afro-Brazilian religions.

In 1993, a similar challenge made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah. The city council of Hialeah, Florida, had passed an ordinance prohibiting the ritual slaughter of animals “not for the primary purpose of food consumption,” effectively outlawing practices used in Santeria, a religion brought to the United States by Cubans. In that case, the court ruled that Hialeah had violated the first amendment of the U.S. Constitution and religious tolerance prevailed.

With the blessing of agribusiness

Devout followers of Islam and Judaism who follow halal and kosher dietary customs also adhere to specific slaughter rituals as part of their religious practice. However, in Brazil, those two religions and their customs have been seen more favorably and challenges to these practices have never come close to the Supreme Court.

Some major players in Brazil’s massive agribusiness have even specialized in religious slaughter in order to guarantee access to lucrative export markets. JBS, the world’s leading meat packing company, and owner of the Friboi and Seara brands, is the largest exporter of halal meat in the country. Halal slaughter, known as “dhabihah,” must follow certain customs, including slitting the animal’s throat and invoking the name of God during the act. Brazil’s other market leader, BRF, focuses 25 percent of its production on the Islamic market — even after Reporter Brasil revealed in 2012 that BRF does not conduct the halal slaughter process properly. Both companies are targets of Operation Carne Fraca, the anti-bribery sweep that led to arrests last week.

Meanwhile, a member of the congressional farm lobby, federal representative Valdir Colatto, proposed a bill that would permit the hunting of wild animals in order to protect the herds of the agribusiness magnates. The bill would allow the killing of exotic animals that threaten plantations or cattle and also allow for the creation of private reserves for hunting for sport. Defending the proposal, Colatto specifically cited jaguars as a threat and called wild animals “plagues” that transmit diseases and cause economic harm.

Also under pressure from the farm lobby, congress passed a constitutional amendment that permits the continued existence of a sport practiced in the northeast of Brazil known as “vaquejada,” in which two cowboys on horseback try to knock over a bull. After the Supreme Court ruled against the practice, considering it to be animal cruelty, lawmakers saved vaquejada by classifying it as Brazilian cultural patrimony. The amendment may still be altered to also authorize cockfighting.

“There is no possible comparison between the vaquejada, where the animal is confined and has his scrotal sack tied, and religious slaughter, where there is no suffering. And in cockfights, oftentimes, the loser eventually dies. In these cases, there is no doubt about cruelty,” Hédio Silva Jr. told The Intercept.

It seems as if the concept of cruelty is relative. Are Brazilians really worried about the plight of animals in African religious rituals?

Top photo: Butchers work at the popular Lapa Market March 20, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil.