Santeria leaders hope tolerance of faith's rituals spreads
Humane animal killings in ceremonies are permitted under U.S. Constitution
By Mike Clary
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Although Santeria has been widely practiced in South Florida for decades, the Afro-Cuban religion, which at times includes animal sacrifices, remains cloaked in mystery and sensation.
Just last year, police staged an armed raid on a Coral Gables home where several goats, chickens and pigeons were being slaughtered in a ritual. Several worshipers were held at gunpoint and detained for hours.
But leaders of the faith are hailing a recent decision by Miami-Dade County police officials to include in their Law Enforcement Handbook a reminder that the U.S. Constitution protects the humane killing of animals in religious ceremonies.
Yeyefini Efunbolade, a Santeria priest who lives in Hollywood, expressed hope that the message will spread to Broward and Palm Beach counties, and other jurisdictions with reputations for less tolerance for animal sacrifices.
"You can't even buy an animal, let alone conduct a ceremony in Broward," Efunbolade said. "We stopped doing [sacrifices] up here. Whenever we have services or ordination [involving an animal sacrifice] we rent a hall in Miami-Dade."
Based on a mixture of West African religions and Catholicism, Santeria has long been controversial, chiefly because of rituals that call for the sacrifice of animals, usually goats and chickens.
The rites can be bloody, and carcasses dumped in public places can be disturbing.
Ernesto Pichardo, president of Lukumi Babalu Aye church in Hialeah, estimates that some 100,000 people practice Santeria in South Florida.
"We know it's here," Palm Beach Sheriff's Detective Cassie Kovacs said. "We usually find remnants: a goat's head tacked to a tree, remains left at intersections or train tracks."
Yet, sacrifices performed humanely are legal, said Lt. Sherry Schlueter, who for 28 years has headed the Broward Sheriff's Office special victims and family crimes unit.
"The most important word here is humane," Schlueter said. "If a person kills an animal in a cruel manner, if the knife is not sharp or the kill is not done swiftly, that would be a crime, regardless if it was done as part of a ritual."
Pichardo and Efunbolade said they agree. "We believe that the spirit of the animal will come back to haunt you if you make a sacrifice incorrectly," Efunbolade said.
Santeros, or priests, must undergo extensive training before they are qualified to conduct sacrifices, Pichardo said.
Constitutional protection to practice religion applies to the residents of all 67 Florida counties, a principle that was upheld by a 1993 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. That decision grew out of a lawsuit filed by the Lukumi Babalu Aye church charging the city of Hialeah of illegally enacting ordinances designed to persecute Santeria practitioners.
In the 15 years since that decision, Pichardo has become a well-known advocate for religious freedom, teaching college courses and conducting sensitivity training for police agencies on how to respond to complaints involving animal sacrifices.
"We praise Dade for being the first to take a good step toward reducing misunderstandings and violations of our civil rights," said Pichardo, a santero. "We're hoping that other counties will follow suit. Because Broward and Palm Beach counties are hot spots of religious animal sacrifices, too."
Although Miami-Dade has the largest number of Santeria followers, services are held in Broward and Palm Beach counties as well.
"The perception is that we in Broward have different laws. But I say with some pride that it's enforcement," said Schlueter, who in 1989 helped write the state's felony animal cruelty statute. "People know that if county and state laws are violated, we are unafraid to proceed. We have a sworn duty to protect the animal members of society."
The decision by Miami-Dade police to include a note about handling calls involving animal sacrifices in the 2009 Law Enforcement Handbook stems from a July 11 memo written by department legal adviser Nicole Dixon. In the memo, she reminds officers of the 1993 Supreme Court decision, and the Florida Humane Slaughter Act that governs the handling and killing of livestock.
Dixon then suggests that in lieu of evidence of cruelty, police could look for violations of noise or parking laws at a religious service.
"We just want to make sure that officers are aware that they can sacrifice as part of their practice," said Dixon, an attorney.
Mike Clary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 305-810-5007.
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