Santeria priest ready for fight with Gables

A nationally recognized Santeria priest has engaged an attorney in his battle with Coral Gables after police there interrupted a ceremony with animal sacrifices at a home last summer.

Miami Herald/May 25, 2008

A Santeria priest who took Hialeah's ban of animal sacrifice to the U.S. Supreme Court - and won - is taking on another local city: Coral Gables.

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.

Records Request

An attorney he recently hired, David Aelion, has filed a public records request for any documents relating to the incident, which took place June 8. Aelion has requested all the incident reports, any internal investigations reports and communications between officers the day of the incident, as well as photographs taken at the scene, inventory reports and all city communications referring to the scene.

"We want to find out why they were there for quite a few hours holding them [the practitioners] against their will," Aelion told The Miami Herald Friday.

"It is pretty clear that the U.S. Supreme Court allows them to practice their religion freely. Why did it take many officers and that long to find out that they had no right to be there and no right to bother them?"

He said he was preparing for a possible civil rights violation case.

"We're not jumping into whether or not there is a civil rights violation until we actually see the documents and see what happened," Aelion said. "But there certainly could have been."

That June afternoon, Santeria priest Jesús Suarez was performing a priesthood ceremony - one of the religion's most sacred, which includes the sacrifice of several animals - at the home of Noriel Batista in the 1800 block of Casilla Street.

After reportedly getting a complaint from a neighbor who said they could hear the animals suffer, officers reported to the home "guns drawn," Pichardo and Batista said.

In all, about two dozen officers reported to the home and desecrated the holy space, the priests said.

'Aggressive Response'

Their attorney said in a statement that the police department's "aggressive response and extended stay at the Suarez home regarding this incident rocked the Santeria community of the United States, who had come to believe that the 1993 United States Supreme Court opinion protecting their religious right actually meant something."

The public records request was filed earlier this month. The city has not yet provided any.

City Attorney Elizabeth Hernandez, reached on her cellphone while on vacation in North Carolina on Friday, said her office routinely handled public records requests and furnished records as required by state law. She did not have the file with her, but said she believed some of the records Pichardo asked for were legally excludable.

Aelion said, however, that the city was intentionally blocking the records.

"The things they are saying is excludable are absolutely open public records and we have every right to them," the attorney said. "That's why they hired me. The city is going to have to comply and if they don't we'll be filing suit against them."

Hernandez also said the request was hefty and would likely require significant research and extensive copies, and that Pichardo would have to pay the same deposit everyone else must pay when asking for large numbers of documents.

"I've asked the police department to give me the cost of the research. As soon as I get it, I will communicate to the lawyer how much it is," Hernandez said.

She also said that nobody called her office to say they weren't getting documents they had requested.

Pichardo knows what it's like to fight City Hall. In 1993, after the city of Hialeah passed a law that prohibited religious animal sacrifice, Pichardo appealed the law to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor.

At the time, the judges said their review "confirms that the laws in question were enacted by officials who did not understand, failed to perceive, or chose to ignore the fact that their official actions violated the nation's essential commitment to religious freedom."

Pichardo said he will sue for the records if they are not produced in a timely manner.

"We are going to address this vigorously and we are not going to stand for [Coral Gables Mayor Don] Slesnick and others to ignore us," he said.

"I'll take it all the way to the Supreme Court if I have to.

To see more documents/articles regarding this group/organization/subject click here.