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Theology Thursdays: Santeria leader Fights Euless Ban On Animal Sacrifice by Michael Grabell


The room was set up with benches and shrines, the herbs, dried coconuts and eggshell chalk laid out on a table. With the preparations done, 10 church members sat by the pool behind the red-brick home on the cul-de-sac and drank beer.

The next day, they would sacrifice a chicken to initiate a new member, using the energy in its blood to communicate with the spirits, known as orishas.

But then Euless police knocked on the door.

The officers explained to the priest, Jose Merced, that killing animals of any kind is illegal within the city limits. And Mr. Merced tried unsuccessfully to explain that animal sacrifice is as essential to his religion, Santeria, as the Eucharist is to Catholicism.

Now, Mr. Merced has filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against the city, thrusting the African-Caribbean religion and the quiet suburb into the spotlight. And Mr. Merced has a U.S. Supreme Court case supporting Santeria animal sacrifice, indicating that Euless might have to compromise.

"It appears that city officials are either deliberately defying the Supreme Court justices on this ruling or they're simply confused," said Ernesto Pichardo, head of the Santeria religion in the U.S. and the plaintiff in the 1993 Supreme Court case.

Euless officials declined to present their side of the story, saying they wouldn't comment on their dispute with Mr. Merced, the intentions of their ordinance or the Supreme Court case because of the pending lawsuit.

The city's code says the law against slaughtering animals is intended to promote "the health, safety, morals and general welfare of the city," "to protect property values" and "to enhance the quality of life of persons, pets and other animals."

The dispute has left many residents in the Dallas-Fort Worth area wondering: What is Santeria? How did it get to Euless? And where do you draw the line between religious tolerance and a community's right to ban the killing of animals?

Long path to U.S.

Santeria, also known as Lukumi, originated among the Yoruba people in southwestern Nigeria thousands of years ago and came to the Caribbean through the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

It arrived in South Florida during the Cuban exodus of the 1960s. High priests, or obas, like Mr. Pichardo estimate that there are 3 million to 4 million followers in the U.S.

"This is not drinking blood, and we don't sacrifice children," Mr. Pichardo said. "It is an African religion that has its own central dogma, its own bible. It is a pre-Christian religion. It has its own ceremonies. It has its own rituals."

But like other African religions that followed the slave trade, such as voodoo and macumba, the practice of Santeria takes place outside the public eye, through home worship instead of in a central temple.

"We don't do it in a church because due to the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the diaspora, they totally pulverized those kinds of religious and social structures," Mr. Pichardo said.

Believers in Santeria came to Euless for the same reason many others did its proximity to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and higher-paying jobs with the airlines.

Mr. Merced arrived from Puerto Rico in 1990. He says at least four other Santeria families live in Euless, and he estimates that there could be as many as 6,000 followers in North Texas.

"There's some in Bedford and there's some in Hurst, and some are in Fort Worth," Mr. Merced said. "They're everywhere. They're just scared of getting in trouble."

The complaints started after he became the only Santeria oba in the region in 1999 and started performing rituals and holding gatherings at his house. Neighbors began complaining to police about cars blocking driveways, loud chanting, animal cries and smells.

There have been many ceremonies at the house, but Mr. Merced says he's conducted just two animal sacrifices in the area, using chickens and goats.

The offerings are an essential part of the religion, considered so sacred that Santeria would cease to exist without them. Santeria teaches that the orisha spirits, which emanated from God, can manifest themselves only through the energy contained in blood, which opens a channel of direct communication with the orishas.

The blood is also an essential part of what makes a priest a priest.

"If you were to remove animal offerings from ordination rites, [Santeria] would not have priests," Mr. Pichardo said.

"Can we remove the ritual symbolic cannibalistic act of drinking wine as Jesus Christ's blood?" he asked. "You do that, you do not have the ability of conducting a Christian Mass."

After the ritual, the animals are cleaned, cooked in a stew and eaten during a feast.

Diversity in Euless

Euless isn't some hayseed Podunk, ignorant of other cultures. This is a town that rallies around its high school football team's dancing of the haka a Polynesian war dance that involves chanting, chest-thumping and tongue-flailing.

The city of about 50,000 people has one of the highest concentrations of Tongans in the U.S. and a large percentage of Mexican immigrants. Almost 40 languages are spoken in its elementary schools.

"We are not narrow-minded, and we certainly are not insensitive to other cultures," said Betty Fuller, whose husband is related to the town's founders who migrated to Texas after the Civil War.

Ms. Fuller lives four houses down from the house where Mr. Merced performs the Santeria rituals. She said she believes they're entitled to their religious beliefs but shouldn't be sacrificing animals in a neighborhood. Years ago, her husband's ancestors slaughtered pigs and chickens for food on the very same land.

"You would wring a chicken's neck and have it for Sunday dinner, and that was perfectly fine," Ms. Fuller said. "That was back in the '30s and '40s, when there were only 200 people living in Euless.

"This is not out-in-the-country Euless anymore."

Legal debate

After the police confronted him last May, Mr. Merced brought another Santeria priest from Puerto Rico to meet with city officials.

He said the sacrifice is done humanely with a single puncturing of the carotid artery with a 4-inch knife. After cooking, the remains are thrown in the trash.

"If you go to a store and buy a rotisserie chicken, you eat the meat, where do you put the bones?" Mr. Merced asked. "Does Kentucky Fried Chicken have a special place to put the bones?"

But city officials again told him that any killing of animals was prohibited.

Mr. Pichardo, the head priest in the U.S., has been down this road before. In 1992, he went before the Supreme Court to challenge an ordinance in Hialeah, Fla., prohibiting the sacrifice of animals but making exceptions for other killings, such as fishing, hunting and the euthanasia of pets.

With all nine justices concurring, the Supreme Court ruled that the law was "gerrymandered" to target Santeria.

Mr. Pichardo said Mr. Merced's lawsuit involving Santeria animal sacrifice is the first he's aware of since the high court decision.

But that ruling may not provide a clear victory for Mr. Merced, religious law experts said. Euless' ordinance has been on the books since 1974 and wasn't created in response to Santeria followers.

Kelly Shackelford, head of the Plano-based Liberty Legal Institute, said the suit would probably come down to whether the city enforces its ban with no exceptions.

"If in the city, you literally cannot kill animals for any reason, you can't kill them," he said. "But if they allow any other exemption for the killing of animals, then they're dead on arrival."

Euless' ordinance does make exceptions for rodent control. It also says the city can kill any animal that has rabies or attacks another animal or person.

But the city also allows animals to be euthanized at the local shelter for other reasons.

And large gatherings around the cooking of livestock are not that uncommon in Euless.

Since immigrating to Euless in the early 1980s, the Tongans have celebrated holidays by roasting pigs in a tradition similar to Hawaiian luaus.

The festivals by members of the Tongan First United Methodist Church on Main Street sometimes involve as many as 15 pigs, said the Rev. Alex Latu. Because few people have freezers large enough to fit a whole hog, sometimes "they go and buy them live and kill it in the back yard," he said.

Mr. Latu said city officials have expressed concern about outdoor roasting only during severe droughts. Tongans have complied with the burn bans, he said. Pig roasting is a cultural tradition, not a religious one.

"We just learn as a minority to cope and work with the community, not to stay and hide within our own little four corners," Mr. Latu said.

He said he's never heard of Santeria. He has no problem with people with different beliefs, but he said he generally associates animal sacrifice with cults.

"It's a little bit strange," he said. "If that's what they use for their religious rituals, it's OK. I don't know if it will affect the whole community in the future. From time to time, those kinds of religions turn out to be something else. I think they might want to have the city look at it."

This article appeared in The Dallas Morning News. E-mail Michael Grabell at mgrabell@dallasnews.com


Michael Grabell

Thursday, January 25, 2007

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