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Florida’s First Santeria Church Opens After Months Of Controversy

August 17, 1987

HIALEAH, Fla. (AP) _ The first Santeria church in Florida opened Sunday with followers praying and offering fruit and money to their god as animal rights activists gathered outside to protest the church’s practice of ritual sacrifice.

″I feel wonderful today,″ said Ernest Pichardo, a priest in the religion which has its roots in African beliefs brought to the Caribbean by slaves. ″I think this is what the First Amendment is really about.″

Pichardo said the church will conduct animal sacrifices but declined to say when. The state attorney general has declared the practice illegal.

″As soon as it is necessary, according to our religious dogma, we will do it,″ Pichardo said.

The opening of La Iglesia Lukumi Babalu-Aye capped a bitter, three-month fight with city officials and neighbors who tried to bar the church because of the practice of ritual slaughter of chickens, doves, pigs and goats.

Pichardo argued that efforts to keep his church shuttered violated his right to freedom of religion, and said the animals were humanely slaughtered by slitting their throats and the carcasses are later eaten.

City officials granted a certificate of occupancy for the building Aug. 7, not long after Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth issued an advisory opinion, which doesn’t carry the weight of law, saying animal sacrifice in religious ceremonies was against state law.

City Attorney Bill Wetzel has said church members can be jailed if any animals are killed.

A handful of animal rights activists picketed Sunday outside the fence surrounding the one-story blue and white church, a former used car dealership.

″This is a holocaust against animals,″ said Helene Starr, a Miami teacher. ″We’re reversing 500 years of civilization in North America. Is this country going to tolerate what we used to consider savage practices?″

Inside, about 20 Santeria followers danced and prayed, offering money, tropical fruits and a big cake frosted in white and purple to the god Babalu- Aye. Before Sunday, followers had practiced their religion, a mixture of Roman Catholicism and African tribal beliefs, in private homes.

″We’re letting the deities know we’re here and ready,″ said Pichardo’s brother, Fernando, the church’s treasurer.

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