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THE NATION : DISPATCH FROM CORAL GABLES, FLA.

Religious freedom won't be sacrificed

A Santeria priest files a lawsuit stemming from a police raid during a worship ritual.

August 11, 2008|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

By some estimates there are 100,000 Santeria worshipers in Florida. Some of them, inevitably, had difficulties, and Pichardo did what he could to come to their aid. He began issuing laminated cards "certifying" Santeria priests to help them avoid run-ins with the law.

And he tried not to take himself too seriously. He showed up at one local celebrity baseball game with a rubber chicken tied around his neck.

His religion seemed to gain a little more acceptance. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina now calls Pichardo to help mediate the parking, noise and animal issues that arise from Santeria home services.

"We've all matured," Robaina said. "We need to respect everyone's religion."

The Coral Gables incident was sparked by a young neighbor who called 911 after hearing the goats braying. After the police showed up, Suarez, the priest, tried to show them the laminated card from Pichardo's church. He said they told him the ID was not valid.

No one was arrested, but the worshipers say they were detained for three hours.

"Basically, they violated and desecrated the sacred space," Pichardo said. "They turned it into a circus."

A number of neighbors near the house say they had no problem with Santeria. But the killing of more than 50 animals did raise issues of health and decorum.

Oral surgeon Carlos Coro, 46, said Coral Gables is an upscale city and a highly regulated one: Homeowners in some places need a permit to paint the interior walls of their houses. "It's just a common-sense issue," he said. "Do it in a place of worship. Don't do it in modern suburbia."

Pichardo knows that similar misunderstandings are likely in multicultural South Florida, where Haitians, Dominicans, Puerto Ricans and others continue to import non-mainstream religious practices. But he believes there will be less tension the more familiar people are with them.

He knows many people will be surprised when they discover, in his own handsome suburban house, his elaborate shrine to the orishas, with its beads and vessels and candles.

It's just around the corner from the microwave oven and the Mr. Coffee machine.

"People say, 'You're not part of the mainstream,' " Pichardo said. "I'm like, 'Really?' "

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richard.fausset@latimes.com

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