An otherwise peaceful neighborhood on the west side of San Antonio, Texas, was disturbed when Bexar County sheriff’s deputies raided a home on Bronze Sand Road on Friday night. Responding to a call of possible animal cruelty, officers 11 persons engaged in what officers said was the dismemberment of chickens, goats, and other animals. According to reports, bilingual officers who speak English and Spanish found that the group engaged in apparent animal sacrifice spoke an unknown language that they could not understand. Devotees of Santeria -- an Afro-Cuban cult -- call on various divinities in a patois that includes words of African origin. The names of the divinities inlude: Elegua, Yemanja, Bogun, and Chango.

According to a report by the Bexar County Sheriff’s Office, deputies were told by the residents of the house that ritual sacrifices were being made for religious purposes. 

Inside the garage, officers found one woman hacking up parts of animals, while another member of the group was draining blood from a chicken into a container. Deputies also found several goat heads, as well as a number of dead and mutilated animals inside the residence. Several live animals were also removed. Neighbors had seen one of the residents appear during the day wearing a white apron, while quail were seen running in the front yard while the residents sought to catch them.

Deputies arrested 11 women and men, who ranged in age from 23 to 65. They stand charged with acts of cruelty to livestock -- a Class A misdemeanor, unless it’s enhanced because of previous related offenses. However, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1993 that animal cruelty laws or ordinances that target specific religions are unconstitutional. In 2009, a man sued the city of San Antonio for prohibiting him from sacrificing goats on his property. Jose Merced -- a practitioner of the Afro-Cuban cult known as Santería  -- eventually won his case. The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals used the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act to rule in his favor.  

On Friday, the following people were arrested: Alexander Gene Campos, 23; Ivan Felipe Gonzalez, 24; Carmen Maria Gonzalez-Trujillo, 41; Cynthia Gabriell Martinez, 29; Liza Mercado, 46; Marie Galan Murcia, 65; Ramon Patino Jr., 65; Luiz Rodriguez Ortiz, 41; Robert Talamantez, 55; Irma Garza Talamantez, 64; and Arteaga Ariel Torres, 39.

Justice Anthony Kennedy's majority opinion found that ordinances enacted by the Hialeah City Council were constitutionally flawed because their goal was to suppress the Santeria religion. The ordinances were passed in 1987, shortly after the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye, a Santeria congregation, announced plans to build a church and community center where religious rites including animal sacrifice would take place. "The record in this case compels the conclusion that suppression of the central element of the Santeria worship service was the object of the ordinances," Justice Kennedy wrote. 

Hialeah sought to defend its prohibition of animal sacrifice as a public health measure. Justice Kennedy ruled that Hialeah "could have imposed a general regulation on the disposal of organic garbage" if that was its actual concern. Hialeah’s principal ordinance defined sacrifice as "to unnecessarily kill, torment, torture, or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." The Santeria church's constitutional challenge to the ordinance was rejected by the Federal District Court in Miami, as well as the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta.

Santeria (pronounced sahnt-ah-REE-ya) is practiced by more than 70,000 people in the Cuban-American community in South Florida. However, experts believe that thousands more are found nationwide in Chicago, New York, and other cities with large Caribbean immigrant populations. Santeria blends traditional Yoruba religion from West Africa, brought to Cuba and the Dominican Republic and Haiti by African slaves, with material elements of Roman Catholicism. In the cult, Catholic saints are given new identities entirely distinct from their original identities. In Santeria rituals, the sacrificed animals are usually eaten, but the carcasses are sometimes discarded in other cases. 

Usually, the animals are eaten as part of the ritual, but in some rituals the carcasses are discarded. The city defended its ban on sacrifices in part as a public health measure, but Justice Kennedy said today that Hialeah "could have imposed a general regulation on the disposal of organic garbage" if that was its actual concern.



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Spero News writer Martin Barillas is a former US diplomat, who also worked as a democracy advocate and election observer in Latin America. His first novel 'Shaken Earth', is available at Amazon.

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