- The Washington Times - Monday, January 15, 2007

EULESS, Texas — Jose Merced said he is tired of Euless police knocking at his door and interrupting his church services.

Police have told Mr. Merced that his Santeria religious rites are against the law in this rapidly growing community because some of its ordination rituals involve the sacrifice of animals. One of his neighbors on the small cul-de-sac registered a complaint, but police did not tell him who.

He said fewer than 10 members of his group meet regularly in his Euless home.

After repeated visits and warnings, Mr. Merced, a 45-year-old airline employee, consulted Ernesto Pichardo, the church’s president, and filed a lawsuit against the city claiming his religious freedom had been violated.

“We’ve been down this road before,” Mr. Pichardo told The Washington Times.

In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down an ordinance in Hialeah, Fla., as a violation of the First Amendment’s “free exercise” of religion clause. Justices agreed with Mr. Pichardo, the lead plaintiff in the case, saying the city targeted its law to Santeria sacrificial rites.

The city of Euless refused to comment on the lawsuit, but Avery Jackson, who was waiting in line at City Hall last week, was not so circumspect.

“Would you want children to watch chickens or goats being killed for their blood?” he said. “Come on, get real. They might do that in Haiti or Cuba or somewhere, but in Euless, Texas?”

Mr. Pichardo, 52, a Cuban refugee who lives in Florida, compared the drawing of blood to the Eucharist in Catholicism.

“This is not drinking blood, and we don’t sacrifice children,” he said. “And we don’t go around snatching pets.”

Mr. Merced said authorities “just don’t understand our religion” and that his group of followers might go as long as a year without such sacrifices.

“This doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “It’s only on special occasions.”

Some Santeria members pointed out that Tongans, who have a 4,000-strong community in this metro area, roast as many as 15 pigs at festivals in their United Methodist churches.

The Rev. Alex Latu, minister of the Tongan United Methodist Church, bristled at the comparison of pig roasts to blood sacrifice.

“When we cook pigs, it is not a religious thing. It’s cultural,” he said. “We simply like pork. It’s similar to how Americans cook a turkey to celebrate Thanksgiving.”

Mr. Latu said he did not have a strong feeling about the legal argument of Santeria followers, but a ruling “would only affect them, not other religions.”

He noted that Mormons were forced to comply with laws against polygamy. “Though I do not want to see the government involved in all such instances, sometimes certain things help the community as a whole,” he said.

Santeria originated among the Yoruba in southwestern Nigeria centuries ago and was introduced to Caribbean nations, Cuba primarily, via the slave trade.

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