Almost 30 years ago, Hialeah passed an ordinance banning animal sacrifice in an attempt to stop a group of Santería practitioners from building a place of worship in the city. The church challenged the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which unanimously agreed that such a ban would violate the religious freedom of Hialeah's residents.
The decision was hailed as a major victory for the church, whose leader said animal sacrifice "is an integral part of our faith." But fast-forward to today, and at least one Hialeah resident claims she is still being discriminated against for practicing the Afro-Cuban religion.
Last week, Rosa Cabrera filed a federal lawsuit against the Hialeah Housing Authority that accuses the department of terminating her Section 8 voucher after it learned she had filled a room in her home with religious figurines and memorabilia.
No response has been filed so far by the housing authority, and an attorney for the agency hasn't yet responded to New Times' request for comment.
According to Cabrera's lawsuit, she was at her home on NW 32nd Court Saturday, May 2, 2014, when someone knocked on the front door. She opened it to find a uniformed man carrying a handgun and wearing a bulletproof vest. The man told her he was an investigator with the housing authority and demanded to search the home.
Inside, the investigator, later identified as Rene Gutierrez, found a friend of Cabrera's conducting religious rituals in a back room. Gutierrez then said something to the effect of, "Yes, I see this is Satanic stuff," the complaint says.
Within the week, Cabrera says, she received a letter in the mail saying her Section 8 voucher would be terminated because she had allowed the friend, Nelson Marquez, to stay in her apartment. Cabrera and Marquez fought the termination, providing a letter from Marquez's landlord, his driver license, and an electric bill showing he lived elsewhere.
While she was appealing the ruling, Cabrera says, two investigators at the housing authority pulled her aside and asked her to write a letter saying she didn't charge people for tarot card readings or cowrie shell readings. Cabrera wrote the letter, which was placed into her file.
The housing authority later accused Cabrera of allowing her grandson and her sister to live with her. But Cabrera also denied those accusations.
But as the termination process dragged on, Cabrera came to believe the case was actually motivated by her religious beliefs. During a hearing in November 2014, Gutierrez, the housing investigator, admitted to setting up a recorded phone call between Cabrera and her landlord so the landlord could grill Cabrera to see if she was charging people for tarot card readings.
"Gutierrez did not ask the landlord to inquire as to who lived with her. Instead, he focused solely on her religious practices," the complaint says.
The investigation also led Marquez to temporarily lose his Section 8 voucher, although it was reinstated after a hearing where he provided evidence proving he did not live with Cabrera.
Alexandra Lopez, the lawyer representing Cabrera and Marquez, writes that the whole thing was essentially a witch hunt by the Hialeah Housing Authority.
"Ever since the day Gutierrez entered Cabrera's apartment and saw the religious figure, he wanted to terminate Cabrera and Marquez's Section 8 vouchers at all costs," Lopez writes.
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