How would you feel if 23 police officers burst into your home, made you, your family, and your house-guests stand outside for hours, only to ascertain that you hadn’t broken any laws? That is what happened to Noriel Batista one year ago in Coral Gables, Florida, after an anonymous phone-call reported suspected animal abuse. Since then, the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye has been requesting documents from the police to find out why such a massive and over-zealous police presence was necessary to respond to an animal abuse call.
“Ernesto Pichardo, president of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, has been trying for almost a year to obtain records relating to the interruption of a Santeria ceremony by police last summer. An attorney he recently hired, David Aelion, has filed a public records request for any documents relating to the incident…”
Despite these requests, the police have only handed over around twenty pages of documents, which Aelion and Pichardo maintain is only the tip of the iceberg for a police action of that size. So a lawsuit has been filed accusing the Coral Gables police of withholding documents.
“The Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye — which took Hialeah’s ban of animal sacrifices to the Supreme Court in 1993, and won — filed suit in the 11th Judicial Circuit Court of Miami-Dade County last week, comparing the City Beautiful to the communist regime in Cuba and urging the court to compel officials to provide public records. Attorney David Aelion, representing the church, said the June 2007 incident could be a direct attack to the religion because of what he called excessive police response. He wants the records — including e-mails about the incident, photographs and audio recordings, and police reports and memorandums — to determine if there were federal rights violations.”
Aelion and Pichardo have speculated the massive response was to make a political statement that Santeria wasn’t welcome in a “nice” city like Coral Gables.
“‘It sounds a lot like `We’re going to make a statement that this isn’t going to happen in our city,’ and that’s where obviously freedom of religion, First Amendment rights were stepped on,” Aelion said, adding that there also may be Fourth Amendment issues. ‘They basically blasted into the house without any warrants and without any probable cause,’”
They may be right. The mayor of Coral Gables has been an outspoken opponent of Santeria in the past, and has claimed to be “investigating” the laws concerning Santeria and animal sacrifice. He has rebuffed calls in the past year for an apology over the incident. But why would he do otherwise? No doubt his power resides with the affluent, predominately white residents who are most likely uneasy about this strange religion moving in. An uneasiness rooted in racism according to Miguel A. De LA Torre, author of “Santeria: The Beliefs And Rituals Of A Growing Religion In America”.
“There is a fear that is rooted in racism … this religion is practiced by Latinos, or people of African descent. It’s an element of ‘Oh, look at these primitive people sacrificing animals’ … For some people, moving up the economic or social ladder means assimilation, putting away the old religion … But then you have a generation that says, ‘I will live in an upscale neighborhood, but I will also have my santos, thank you very much.’”
So it looks like this issue is only just beginning. Assuming they do get their hands on all documents and communications from that day last year, it is very likely that further lawsuits will be filed claiming violations of their First and Fourth Amendment rights, and even possible false imprisonment for holding everyone outside for hours and not allowing them to leave. If city officials were indeed trying to intimidate a religious minority, their efforts appear to be backfiring. Mayor Don Slesnick (a Democrat) is most likely hoping that the existing paper-trail doesn’t lead back to his door.