Death in the City Beautiful

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

It was pouring rain this past June 8 when Ofcr. James Banks approached the salmon-color home at 1801 Casilla St. in Coral Gables. He knocked, and the door swung open.

There stood a man dressed in white and covered in blood. He held a knife in his right hand.

Simultaneously another officer, Scott Selent, headed behind the house. He spotted two black men surrounded by animal carcasses.

Pichardo: A Santería luminary with international cachet
Jacqueline Carini
Pichardo: A Santería luminary with international cachet

At that point the police could have stopped and spoken with folks in the house. They might have determined it was all part of a highly sacred ritual to induct Noriel Batista, the homeowner, into the priesthood of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye. The officers may well have phoned the State Attorney's Office and discovered that Santería rituals, and the animal sacrifices that sometimes accompany them, are perfectly legal under the U.S. Constitution.

But they didn't. They drew their guns and called for backup. One man in the yard put his hands in the air and yelled in a panic: "¡Oye! ¡Estamos haciendo una ceremonia religiosa! ¡No tire!" ("Listen! We are doing a religious ceremony! Don't shoot!")

Within minutes, some two dozen cops in SWAT gear and a handful of Coral Gables code enforcement officials — without warrants — swarmed the half-million-dollar home. They marched the 20 Santería faithful onto the front porch at gunpoint and then snapped pictures of the animal carcasses and ceremonial altar, which amounts to desecration because photos aren't allowed during the rituals.

"To imply that this is animal cruelty is insanity. We are part of this community," says Ernesto Pichardo, head of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah. "We are part of this society."

Indeed, Batista is a pharmacy owner. And Pichardo is a Santería luminary with international cachet.

The religion has roots in West Africa centuries ago and was practiced by slaves who were brought to the Caribbean to work on sugar plantations. Animal sacrifice is performed during some but not all Santería ceremonies. Adherents believe the souls of certain sacred animals (chickens, goats, rams) transmit messages to saints.

In the late Eighties the City of Hialeah tried to stop Pichardo from performing animal sacrifices. In 1992 he took the case to the U.S. Supreme Court and won the following year. The nine justices unanimously agreed that freedom of religious belief was absolute. So animal sacrifice was allowed in most circumstances, as long as the animal wasn't dismembered or tortured before it was killed.

Prior to the Supreme Court ruling, explains Pichardo, a slightly built man who wears gold rim glasses, cops routinely hassled Santería priests and charged them with animal cruelty. After the ruling, the head santero (who also holds a fellowship to teach Afro-Caribbean religions at FIU) helped police departments with religious sensitivity training. The clashes between worshipers and officers were significantly reduced.

But Pichardo has noticed a flurry of cases over the past year or so that point to a lack of knowledge about the court ruling — and possibly outright discrimination against the Santería faith. The most notable happened in late 2006 in Euless, Texas, where a santero sued city officials for banning sacrifice. Police had interrupted a ceremony and stated that killing animals was illegal in the city. Also in Texas, a San Antonio botanica (a store that sell herbs, amulets, and animals for practitioners of Santería) was raided on April 23; police removed several birds and charged the owner with animal cruelty.

Locally, in August 2006, three people in Miami-Dade were arrested on felony animal cruelty charges for slitting a duck's throat during a Santería ceremony. The charges were later dropped. Pichardo cites other cases as well, including one in which police showed up in force at a large drumming party in West Dade.

Some complaints don't involve police. One Coral Gables woman New Times contacted had griped about finding a headless chicken and other religious relics in the Pinewood Cemetery, one of Miami-Dade's oldest burial grounds, last fall. The graveyard, on Erwin Road south of Sunset Drive, no longer accepts burials; it is a historical site with graves dating back to the Civil War. The woman who found the chicken would discuss the incident only on condition of anonymity. "I really believe in their hexes, and I don't want them after me," she says. The woman explains she "understood [the santeros'] religious rights," but questions why ceremonies must be held in residential neighborhoods and public places. "They need to have it in their church or in a warehouse or on the weekend. Doing it in a neighborhood infringes on others' rights."

The woman wrote to Coral Gables City Hall after hearing about the June 8 incident on Casilla Street. She was one of several Gables residents outraged that Santería followers would sacrifice animals within city limits.

During the ceremony at Noriel Batista's tidy home, the followers gathered to perform one of the religion's most sacred ceremonies: making someone a priest. The rite involves hours of prayers, animal sacrifices, and feasting upon the meat of freshly killed animals. Each person at the ceremony had a specific task to perform while reciting prayers, says Jesus Suarez, one of the priests who attended the ritual. (Although Pichardo is head of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, he was not at the ceremony.)

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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