08 September, 2007

Religious Freedom for All? Yes! just not in my backyard

It's not easy to defend an unpopular cause, much less one I disagree with passionately for many reasons. I refer to the religious ritual of animal sacrifice as practiced by the Afro-Cuban religion of santeria.

My disagreement over religion generally and any of its practices particularly, such as animal sacrifice, is not from an anti-clerical mind-set. My disagreement over religion is an intellectual posture, one that has resulted from many years of theological studies and personal introspection.

That doesn't mean, as I wrote, that I can't defend a position I disagree with, even though as I repeat that's never something easy to do.

Recently I read in a local newspaper that in a municipality rightfully known as “the City Beautiful”, Coral Gables, in Southern Florida, a religious meeting known as bembes from practitioners of the santeria religion was interrupted by the city's police department. A bembe is similar to a ritualized meeting for the faithful. Catholics, for example, meet often on sunday and partake of their symbolic myth with hymns, incense, chants and to end the ceremony the sharing of the Eucharist which is, literally, symbolic of the blood of Jesus Christ.

What makes the santeria bembe practice unique, and shocking for many, is that practitioners of santeria, or orichas as they are known, take the main Catholic symbol one step further: they actually offer their gods blood from slaughtered animals, something which many local zoning laws forbid and, as in the case of the exclusive, idyllic and ritzy neighborhood of Coral Gables, it is prohibited regardless of any constitutional issues that may result from silencing a genuine form of religious worship.

Distasteful? Yes, both as a religious practice and as a way to stifle religious freedom.

In order to navigate the choppy waters of the goddess Chango, according to a Miami Herald report the mild-seeming mayor of Coral Gables, Donald Slesnick,III, went on record saying: “I have requested that the city attorney (Elizabeth M. Hernandez, who is of Cuban-descent herself) do an exhaustive investigation of the current status of the law.”

The mayor, a seasoned attorney who knows the law well, doesn't need any thorough interpretation of current law, but a politician will always be a politician and even an attorney of Cuban descent can seem to be thoroughly unfamiliar with a religious practice which to most Cubans is as familiar as Fidel Castro's name. Not to take for granted, the ethnic composition of Coral Gables now has a large Cuban or Latino-descent population, which may explain why the City is playing the role of panderer.

But here's the problem: neither the actions of the police (which may have just been enforcing the law) nor the comments made by the Mayor (no matter how wishy-washy), go to the heart of the matter, which is this: regardless of one's personal distaste or prejudice over something we don't like our constitutional protections were created just in order to prevent one's personal issues from affecting principles which are not based on a dictatorship of ideas, practices or unpopular causes.

Can you imagine if the same police department, or any other law or code enforcement entity, were to break into the services of a Catholic mass or a midnight vigil simply due to an anonymous complaint alleging some form of esoteric lewd or lascivious practice, which includes the spilling of blood from a piece of round bread referred to as a wafer? How about storming into a synagogue during a Jewish meeting? What would happen if Ernesto Pichardo, the soft-spoken and well-read santeria priest of the subject group and whose house was stormed into, were to make a request to start one of the City's commission meeting with a prayer in honor of the santeria gods?

The possibilities are endless, but you get my point.

As a refresher, Mr. Pichardo, well-known for his 1993 U.S. Supreme Court victory protecting animal sacrifice, is also the man in question in this 2007 rerun. He is the head priest of the church in question, Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, and, no, the mention of Babalu Aye is not a parody of Ricky Ricardo.

Religious hostility over a non-sanctioned practice is nothing new, never mind that on paper we live in one of the freest nations in the world, one known for its unique interpretation of splitting government from religion just in order to safeguard the belief systems of our diverse society. This is nothing new, unfortunately. Religious intolerance take on many hues, from well-intentioned religious libertarians as much as tolerant non-religious folks who grow sick and tired of, yet, another silver-plated Christian cross being erected in every street corner while the institutions it represents grow rich from tax-exemption laws.

It is well known that no religion that has a monopoly on people's hearts, or pocketbooks. It is also equally true that in the marketplace of a theistic indoctrination, no religion is more legitimate than the other. This is even more true if the legitimacy of the religion in question is as old as humanity itself; much older, in fact, than some of the major world religions.

Santeria has deep cultural, social and economic roots. It has been a religion of people of an ancient people as much as a religion of the poor, the wealthy and many of us-- the everyman. Never mind that just like other religions were used in order to combat social injustice, such as the Quakers during the Civil War in the United States, or the Protestants in the Middle Ages who shook the Catholic monopoly on faith to its foundations, santeria has been the social and cultural cohesion that helped a group of people remain true to themselves. Their genuine importance is as important as the Judeo-Christianity, as example, and it embodies the same source of importance to its adherents.

Judaism embodies the hopes and fears of the Jewish people. Christianity does the same to its believers and if there is a religion that has caused more harm in history to so many people, it is Christianity in any stage, under any interpretation, under any of its many splinter denominations, under any political system. You name it. But the ability to do harm as much as good is not something for which Christianity should solely be blamed. Any religion whose source is based on an act of rebellion and that, ultimately, gains political power becomes a source of trouble.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana, an atheist, once said that history is prone to be repeated if one were ignorant of it. How true is that! And that is true for all ages, all societies, and all other human interaction.

We like to blind ourselves to the past and, often, forcefully sanitize our memories with the blindfolds of time. Yet, no matter how enlightened we like to think of ourselves, there's always room for improvement and there's never a new topic to dislike and pretend that our seemingly correct attitude towards it-- banning it-- is not akin something for which any of us in the past may have been stigmatized with-- being black was once the same as being an object; having separate urinals was once a code to uphold morals; not being able to vote was the norm; etc. No, despite our prejudices not wanting to understand that all prejudices are alike, what it comes does to is this: discrimination and prejudice. That's it. Period.

Which is why I defend unpopular ideas, regardless. If there is something for which a religion should be strictly constructed to forbid-- say human sacrifice which is manslaughter or forbidding minors from having a lifesaving blood transfusion at the behest of their parents' prohibition as practiced by the Jehova's Witness-- murder is murder and no one should be exempt from contravening criminal laws. Again, that's where my tolerance ends and where the law is fully justifiable to prosecute. That's it. Period.

Unless you are directly affecting my right not to believe, say, by trying to drive out of the neighborhood, then we can live in peace. Whatever happens has nothing to do with your right to hate me, and then make it a point to harm my right to be.

To me, religion is not a transcendental dicta from heaven. I don't think there is a God and if there is none of us is cognitively acute enough to know. Of course, you can always talk to God if you so choose and I can always call you an idiot. But so what? That's the beauty of freedom.

Let God, whatever she is, take care of our souls after our death. As for us here in this great earth, we can take care of our own as we have done since time immemorial. But, religion is not something without some valuable that charters our course in this senseless world. It records our skepticism and our path with too keen of an insight into human nature, something as magnanimous as Shakespeare's plays.

Religion is akin to poetry hence its power over our imaginations; it is something passionate, beautiful, and terrifying. However, it is always human, all too human.

As for santeria and the City of Coral Gables, it would be nice for us to see how a drafted document became the constitutional aspiration of a people known to defend positions for which they themselves were guilty of. The constitution, as it has lasted for two centuries, was drafted in the spirit of our flaws and not our perfections. It was a document that has survived in spite of our tragic past and not because of it. Anything that alludes to the righteousness of our actions end up with the populism of lynching, or separate urinals.

Perhaps the City of Coral Gables can set an example for our diverse society by teaching us all how to live by principles of fairness, tolerance and peace. Don't we all preach those lofty ideals? It is a beautiful municipality, with quiet parks connected by a system of historically-designed fountains and Mediterranean-style residential mansions with large, carefully-manicured green lawns, inhabited with what we may hope are perfect-seeming families trying to set the example of their blessed opportunities with what we can achieve, not what we can exclude.

And now, if you excuse me, I have to go and practice some of my dancing steps to the tune of some conga beats.

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