Death in the City Beautiful

Neighbors are squawking about a Santería ritual. But the Supreme Court says it's okay

Suarez says the day's ritual included 44 chickens, 11 goats, and 2 rams, all of which were brought to the back yard of the house in cages about noon that day. Around that time at least one anonymous call was made to police; a neighbor heard the squawking chickens and bleating goats.

Suarez insists that because of the thick tropical foliage in the front yard — and because the ceremony was held inside the closed garage — there was no way anyone on the street could have seen the sacrifices. But that didn't deter police from responding to the anonymous call.

The officers left after three hours without making an arrest, writing a citation, or issuing a violation. The worshipers were left with an interrupted ritual.

After a few breathless news reports ("Beheaded Animals Divide Coral Gables Neighborhood!" "Goat Sacrifice Disturbs Neighbors!"), the incident is still causing a furor in the City Beautiful. Mayor Don Slesnick has said he was "appalled that there might have been a case of animal cruelty in the Gables." Slesnick intimated he might try to curb sacrifices.

Pichardo believes neighbors called police because of racial, cultural, and religious biases. Santería followers, he says, are from all walks of life, including Coral Gables city workers and police officers. "To assume it is only the religion of the poor, defenseless immigrant is offensive," he says.

Pichardo's ire, however, is reserved for Mayor Slesnick, whom he believes disrespected the Santería faith and its participants. "Slesnick's archaic and bigoted remarks are anti-religion and offensive to the members of Santería religion," Pichardo says. He demands a training program for Coral Gables police officers and a liaison between santeros and city officials. He also wants a public apology from the mayor.

Slesnick has so far declined to apologize. "I am determined to find out what our legal situation is," he fumes. "I'm a lawyer and a mayor, and it is my intent to follow the law. But we don't even let farm animals live in our city, much less destroy them. My position on this probably is only going to be changed by court decisions."

Moreover Slesnick has received a half-dozen or so e-mails from residents who want the city to crack down on Santería practices, and many have applauded him for not apologizing to the participants in the June 8 ceremony. "Some residents can't understand that anything like that would happen in Coral Gables," he explains.

On July 2 a man named Mark Osman wrote to Slesnick: "You have to pass an ordinance against this type of practice, or your real estate values will surely start in a downward spiral." Wrote another, anonymously: "Thank you for not apologizing to the Santerians. You are perfectly correct. In fact I would say that you did not go far enough." 

But city police Chief Michael Hammerschmidt has no such hesitation about apologizing for stopping the ritual in midsacrifice. On July 2 he said he was sorry that officers interrupted the ceremony. He also lamented that no one seems to be happy with the way his department handled the situation. "I think the officers handled it superbly, and I'm very proud of them," he said. "But let's face it, we're in the middle. Residents are upset we didn't do anything, and the congregation, they're saying we desecrated a sacred space. It was a lose-lose situation for us."

Says Pichardo: "The ceremonies will continue to occur in the City Beautiful because our religious community is entitled to live there, and it is their constitutional right to hold the ceremonies whether Slesnick likes it or not."

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