Ernesto Pichardo

October 15, 2009

Over twenty years ago, Oba Ernesto Pichardo was involved in a dispute which turned into a major Supreme Court First Amendment case. That case, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, struck down a city ordinance which barred the sacrifice of animals during Santeria religious rites. It all started when Pichardo’s church leased some land and announced plans to build a place of worship. The practice of Santeria uses animal sacrifice as its main form of devotion. This didn’t sit too well with the city fathers of Hialeah, who immediately passed an emergency city ordinance which “noted city residents’ ‘concern’ over religious practices inconsistent with public morals, peace, or safety, and declared the city’s “commitment” to prohibiting such practices….” The statute then went on to exclude other animal killings from the ban, barring only “ritual” killings.

It was obvious that this statute was solely an attack on Pichardo’s church. The Supreme Court would have none of it. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, wrote that ” Under the Free Exercise Clause, a law that burdens religious practice need not be justified by a compelling governmental interest if it is neutral and of general applicability… However, where such a law is not neutral or not of general application, it must undergo the most rigorous of scrutiny: it must be justified by a compelling governmental interest, and must be narrowly tailored to advance that interest…” ” Moreover, the latter ordinances’ various prohibitions, definitions, and exemptions demonstrate that they were “gerrymandered” with care to proscribe religious killings of animals by Santeria church members but to exclude almost all other animal killings.”

Pichardo was the right man to fight this battle. His church has grown in part because of his charismatic personality. It is estimated that more than 20,000 people currently practice Santeria in south Florida. In 2008, Pichardo taught an undergraduate course at Florida International University in Biscayne Bay. The class covered the transatlantic slave trade, religion in pre-Colonial North America, and the evolution of Santeria out of Catholicism and early Yoruban practice.

Pichardo was also instrumental in making Santeria’s major sacred text available for scholarly study.

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