• U.S.

Shedding Blood in Sacred Bowls

5 minute read
Richard N. Ostling

THE BEIGE STUCCO HOUSE IN MIAMI’S western suburbs looks too tidy and typical to hint at what transpires inside. But the noises give it away: chanting, bleating, squawking, cooing. At the back of the house, in a white-tiled, surgically clean room, sits an old woman in a white dress. She will remain there for an entire week, eating and resting and praying. The remainder of her initiation into the priesthood of Santeria — literally, “saint worship” — will take an entire year, during which she must wear only white, remain celibate and eat only prescribed foods.

She is joined for her initiation ritual by several white-robed men and women. On the floor are vessels made of china and wood containing smooth stones in which the spirits of the gods reside. A priest named Jorge leads in a goat from the garage. The animal moves reluctantly, like a stubborn dog. As the chanting congregation beseeches the deity Chango to accept the animal, a santero, or priest, holds the animal’s head firmly, stretching the neck with one hand. With a sharp knife he easily slices through the carotid artery. The animal struggles feebly. Seconds later, the goat’s head is lying on the floor as blood gushes into each of the vessels.

By the end of the day, six goats, 14 chickens, 14 guinea hens and several doves will be offered as sacrifices. The carcasses will be butchered in the garage and prepared for the next day’s feast. As many as 100 people will attend to celebrate the “birth” of their newest Santeria priest.

To believers in Santeria, ritual sacrifices are essential to winning the favor of the gods and initiating new members into the priesthood. To animal- rights activists, they are gratuitous carnage. In Los Angeles and in Hialeah, Florida, where Santeria is spreading quickly through the Latin, Caribbean and African-American communities, the activists have pressed for laws prohibiting sacrifices. It now falls to the Supreme Court to decide whether those laws violate the Constitution’s protection of “free exercise” of religion.

The Justices will hear arguments next month in the case of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, a Santeria congregation led by Ernesto Pichardo that held its services in a former used-car dealership in Hialeah. Worried about the city’s image, irate animal-rights activists, community leaders and politicians united to pass an anti-sacrifice ordinance in 1987. For animal-rights groups, it was a natural extension of long-established laws on animal cruelty or of more recent crusades to halt animal research.

Pichardo contends that his rituals are no different from hunting or commercial slaughtering of animals for meat. “You can buy Chicken McNuggets in Hialeah,” says Jorge Duarte, an attorney for the Santeria church, “but you can’t kill a chicken for religious reasons.” Santeria spokesmen insist that unlike the gruesome rituals still routinely performed in Cuba, their sacrifices are humane and no animals are tortured. But opponents disagree. “Carcasses are polluting our rivers and rotting in the streets,” says ! Marian Lentz of the Animal Rights Foundation of Florida. Pichardo admits that some offbeat cults may be responsible for the animals floating in canals. But he insists that his own group cooks and ritually eats most of its animals, gives leftovers to the homeless, and neatly disposes of any carcasses that cannot be eaten because they have absorbed negative power.

The practices at issue are as ancient as Cain and Abel. Animal sacrifice was central to Judaism until the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed 19 centuries ago, continues as an annual ritual performed by all Muslims, and has been a part of African animistic religions as far back as records exist. Santeria’s spiritual roots reach back 4,000 years to the Yoruba tribe in southern Nigeria. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the slave communities of Cuba blended worship of Roman Catholic saints with their ancient African rites.

Despite the oddity of animal sacrifice to most Americans, mainstream religious groups have weighed in to support the Lukumi Babalu Aye church. Jewish organizations fear that Hialeah’s law might rule out kosher slaughtering. Christian groups like the Presbyterian Church and National Association of Evangelicals want to prevent the Supreme Court from further restricting religious rights. Complains attorney Oliver Thomas of the Baptist Joint Committee: “The American public has a hard time seeing beyond the dead chickens.”

For years the government had to prove that it had a “compelling interest” in order to limit religious liberty. That was the basis for outlawing Mormon polygyny and Pentecostal snake-handling. But in a significant 1990 decision holding that Native Americans have no constitutional right to ritual use of peyote, the Supreme Court gave government more leeway to restrict religious practices. A proposed bill to restore the “compelling interest” test has not reached the floor of Congress, but another attempt will be made next year.

Pichardo argues that if animal sacrifices are outlawed, a faith that only recently went public will be driven underground again and will become far less subject to regulation. He declares, “People will never stop practicing their religion.” No matter what the Justices think of the way they go about it.

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