But light sentence for perp
LEESBURG, Virginia––Loudoun County, Virginia general district Judge Deborah C. Welsh on August 3, 2016 convicted Santeria priestess Mercy Carrion, 43, on three counts of cruelty to animals, but suspended her sentence on condition that she take a course in how to properly sacrifice animals from Gro Mambo Danthoula Novanyon Idizol, executive board secretary of the National African Religious Congress.
Idizol had testified, as star defense witness for Carrion, that her procedures were not cruel.
“If you’re asking me if this is inhumane,” Idizol reportedly told the court, “I don’t think so.”
Freedom of religion claim failed
Pursuing a defense used many times by Santerians since the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Santerians in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, Carrion contended that the charges brought against her violated her First Amendment right to freedom of religion.
Countered Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Alexandra Hazel, “She has a right to practice her religion,” but that was not the issue before the bench. Rather, Hazel said, the issue was that “She deprived these animals of food, water, and shelter and then cruelly killed them.”
Three roosters in beer boxes
Summarized Justin Jouvenal of the Washington Post, “Loudoun County animal control officers testified that they were called to Carrion’s home on April 25, 2016,” responding to a cruelty complaint. “They found three roosters in feces-and urine-soaked beer boxes in Carrion’s basement. One officer said the birds could not properly move in the boxes.
“Officers returned the next day at 1 a.m. to serve a search warrant on Carrion’s home ,” Jouvenal continued. Carrion testified that she killed the birds just before officers knocked on her door because she wanted to follow through on the sacrifice. The officers testified that they found no evidence of food for the roosters in the house and that Carrion told them that the roosters she killed had died over the course of three to five minutes, a period Hazel argued was not humane. They also recovered one live rooster.”
Veterinarian Michael Gast testified that the dead roosters and the one rooster who survived “were emaciated and showed signs that their muscles had wasted away,” wrote Jouvenal.
Carrion, on the other hand, “testified that she fed the roosters and had purchased them in the condition the officers found them. She told the judge that she had owned them for only two to three days before the slaughter.
First conviction since 2005
Carrion appears to be the first Santerian to be convicted of cruelty to animals since July 2005, when high priest Gilbert Stevenson of South San Francisco, California plea-bargained a sentence of 30 days in San Mateo County jail, and was ordered to pay restitution of $5,520 to the Peninsula Humane Society. In addition, Stevenson was barred from keeping animals other than the pet cat and two dogs he already had.
“Animal-control officers raided Stephenson’s home in May 2004,” recounted San Mateo County Times staff writer Malaika Fraley, “after receiving calls from neighbors complaining about the farm animals he kept in cages behind the house. Authorities seized nearly 200 animals, including pygmy goats, rabbits, a pot-bellied pig and about 100 birds, including chickens, pigeons, guinea hens and ducks.”
Santeria, a Caribbean religion combining West African animist sacrificial practices with trappings of Catholicism, most often comes to the notice of law enforcement when animal remains––and occasionally human remains––are left along roadsides, river banks, and in public parks, cemeteries, and the vicinity of courthouses, usually with other paraphernalia such as candles, at the conclusion of rituals. There may be as many pretexts and occasions for Santerian sacrificial rituals as there are for prayers in other religions.
While the rituals themselves are conducted in secret, public display of the evidence that the rituals have been held is apparently part of the Santerian belief system.
Before the Carrion case, the most recent prominent prosecution of a Santerian came in Euless, Texas. A lower court in 2008 agreed with the city of Euless that Santerian priest Jose Merced broke local ordinances in ceremonially slaughtering goats, lambs, chickens, and turtles at his home.
But the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit law firm, appealed the verdict to a three-judge panel of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court in July 2009 overturned the verdict as a violation of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and urged Euless to draft a permit that would authorize Santerian practices. Euless was also eventually obliged to pay $175,000 in attorney’s fees to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty.
Massachusetts case disappeared
The Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals finding for Jose Merced appeared to have a dampening effect on prosecutions of Santerians around the U.S.
In Lawrence, Massachusetts, for instance, Santerian practitioner Maria Portlantina, 47, was in May 2009 charged with malicious damage to property over $250, animal cruelty, willfully and maliciously killing an animal, willful destruction of a gravestone, and setting a fire in the open without a permit, according to Jim Patten and Yadira Betances of the North Andover Eagle Tribune, but there seems to be no further record of the case.
New York & New Jersey cases
Also vanished without evident further record are misdemeanor cruelty cases filed in August 2008 in Greenburg, New York, against Luis Perez-Hernandez, 64, and his son Louis Hernandez Jr., after police responding to an anonymous complaint found 30 goats and rams in their possession, along with six crates of chickens, pigeons and doves, plus four ducks, eight quail, four turtles, and a goat and a pigeon who had allegedly starved to death.
Luis Perez-Hernandez and Louis Hernandez said they had purchased the animals in New Jersey, where cases had been filed in April 2008 in North Bergen against one Diana Hernandez, 51, and her son, Alain Hernandez, 32, for allegedly dumping bags of decapitated chickens, ducks, Guinea fowl, and pigeons in public places.
Those cases too seem to have disappeared.
California case dropped
Cruelty charges pending in Lawndale, California since January 2006 against Santerian practitioner Rafael Giralt were dropped in May 2009, nearly two months ahead of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals finding for Merced.
“At some point we would have to prove that the animals suffered needlessly or excessively,” deputy district attorney Paul Guthrie. “We didn’t have the proof.”
Deputy public defender Michael Powell had argued at a preliminary hearing in October 2008 that “His client was acting within the laws that guarantee freedom of religious expression,” wrote Denise Nix of the Torrance Daily Breeze.
Giralt was reportedly charged after animal control officers and police responding to a complaint that a woman was sprinkling blood on the sidewalk outside Giralt’s rented home found decapitated pigeons, chickens, and a goat on his premises.
Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye
Prosecutors––and law enforcement agencies, including humane investigators––have tended to shy away from cases involving Santeria and other religions that sacrifice animals since June 1993, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision for religious freedom in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah.
But the U.S. Supreme Court “did not okay animal sacrifice,” according to an extensive case review by attorneys Gary L. Francione and Anna E. Charlton, who then headed the now defunct Animal Rights Law Center at Rutgers University.
“The Court did not hold animal sacrifice to be protected,” wrote Francione and Charlton. “Rather, the Court held that these practices could not be prohibited by legislation that was specifically intended to target religious practices alone.
“Municipality may still ban animal sacrifice”
“A municipality may still ban animal sacrifice,” Francione and Charlton opined, correctly according to the outcome of the Carrion and Stevenson cases, “so long as these prohibitions are in accordance with neutral and generally applicable rules, such as state anti-cruelty statutes. Moreover, a municipality may still ban all slaughter outside of licensed packing houses or prohibit completely the keeping of certain types of animals.
“The Lukumi case arose from concern over the ritual sacrifice of animals,” Francione and Charlton recounted. “The members of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye are practitioners of Santeria,” a religion derived chiefly from the 4,000-year-old Yoruba religion, practiced chiefly in West Africa.
“Yoruba was carried from West Africa to the Caribbean with the slave trade,” Francione and Charlton explained. “Because slaves were frequently forced to convert to Christianity, they could not openly practice Yoruba, and so the slaves ‘syncretized’ the Yoruba dieties with Catholic saints in order to continue worshipping them. Santeria deities have a dual identity: the original Yoruba god, and the Catholic saint with whom the god is syncretized.
“Santeria came to the United States primarily with the influx of Cubans in the 1950s and 1960s,” Francione and Charlton recalled.
Santerians became established in greatest numbers in south Florida, New York City, northern New Jersey, and Los Angeles.
Other Cuban immigrants, in particular, “consider Santeria a backward religion that reflects badly on the Cuban community,” Francione and Charlton wrote, “and the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye’s intention to establish a church in Hialeah caused consternation.
“There are an estimated 60,000 Santeria practitioners in Dade County,” Francione and Charlton summarized. “The priest of the Lukumi Church testified that between 12,000 and 18,000 animals per year are killed in initiation ceremonies alone in Dade County. Many thousands more are killed in other ceremonies as offerings to the gods.”
Responding to the plans of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the City of Hialeah passed six ordinances “that collectively banned animal sacrifice, slaughter, and the keeping of animals for sacrifice or slaughter,” said Francione and Charlton.
But the ordinances exempted animal slaughter of animals in properly zoned and licensed packing plants, and by small farmers who killed small numbers of their own pigs and/or cattle.
“The Supreme Court in Lukumi,” Francione and Charlton said, “concluded that the ordinances were not neutral. The Court stated that ‘The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship was the object of the ordinances,’ and that the Hialeah city council ‘gerrymandered’ the ordinances so that they would only apply to Santeria.
“The Court recognized explicitly that the case involved other concerns ‘unrelated to religious animosity [such as] the suffering or mistreatment visited upon the sacrificed animals, and health hazards from improper disposal. But the ordinances considered together,’” the Court concluded, “’disclose an object remote from these legitimate concerns.’
“Elsewhere,” Francione and Charlton took note, “the Court focused on the trial court’s finding that Santeria slaughter was less humane than that used in licensed and inspected premises, and pronounced that if the state decided that the Santeria method of killing is not humane, ‘the subject of regulation should be the method itself, not a religious classification that is said to bear some relationship to it.’”
Won 1987 case
Francione himself won a 1987 case on behalf of the American SPCA with a similar argument, after Santerians argued in a lawsuit that the New York state anticruelty statute violated their right to freedom of religion.
Wrote Francione and Charlton, “The ‘santeros’ themselves admit that death is not swift” for sacrificed animals. “Santeria practitioners often completely saw the heads off of larger animals, such as goats and sheep, and place the heads of birds and smaller animals underfoot, then pull the animals’ bodies until their heads are ripped off.
“Every use of animals in our society is regulated,” Francione and Charlton finished, “and although such regulation is imperfect in many ways, there is at least an acceptance among society in general that the taking of animal life is something that must be regulated. Santeria practitioners wish to be the only group in our society who can kill animals without any supervision whatsoever. Surely neither the First Amendment nor common sense requires such a result.”
Giant African snails
Apart from the failures of cruelty prosecutions, apparent resurgences of Santeria following the 1993 U.S. Supreme Court ruling on behalf of the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye and the 2009 Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals finding for Jose Merced have roughly coincided with rediscoveries of introduced giant African snails in Florida and New York.
The snails, used in some Santerian ceremonies, were first found in the U.S. in 1966. More than 40,000 were found and removed from Florida habitat in a six-month collection campaign in 2011-2012.
But as well as being probably ineradicable from the wild, the giant snails remain in active, if illegal, commerce.
Agents from the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in August 2014 seized 1,304 giant African snails from alleged traffickers on Long Island and in Georgia, and individual customers in Indiana, Pennsylvania and Albany, New York.
A separate seizure in July 2014 nabbed 67 snails who had been imported from Nigeria to Los Angeles.