The experience of the National African Religion Congress confirms that a major cause of conflict between the practitioners of African-based religions and the communities in which they live is lack of understanding. Practitioners may conduct themselves in a manner that heightens community awareness of their activities in a negative way, causing the community to respond by calling upon governmental and public service agencies to address their concerns. Governmental agencies may respond to community concerns in ways that offend practitioners and trample upon their Constitutional right to exercise their religious freedoms. Both practitioners of African-based religions and governmental officials suffer from a lack of understanding of the cultures that drive the other's actions and foment conflict. The purpose of this article is to illustrate both the nature of the problem and the approach to its resolution.
During the process of carrying out your obligations to the Orisa, Loa, Abosom and providing service to your godchildren, priests and priestesses may find themselves in direct confrontation with municipal authorities: police, license and inspection city agencies, and animal cruelty organizations. Some problems cannot be avoided and must be dealt with directly. However, many problems can be avoided or managed if the conduct of the priest or priestess is correct. We shall explore various situations and scenarios and determine the best preparation or response for each situation or scenario.
Priests and priestesses are required to engage in the sacrifice of animals. The right to perform sacrifice of animals for religious purposes has been affirmed by the United States Supreme Court. LePeristyle Haitian Sanctuary has already determined that the sacrifice of animals for religious purposes does not itself constitute cruelty to animals. This was established some years ago when a journalist for a major Philadelphia newspaper was allowed to witness the sacrifice of animals and to report his observations to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA). They responded that the process described to them did not constitute cruelty to animals. However, there are many ways other ways in which a priest or priestess can expose themselves to charges of being cruel to animals. It has to do with the transportation and maintenance of animals prior to the sacrifice. Animals cannot be transported over long distances under extreme restraint. Goats and sheep cannot be tied with all four legs restrained because it cuts off blood circulation to the legs. They also cannot be placed in the trunk of a car during severe hot weather. If the police stop your car and find animals in your trunk under severe restraint on a hot day, they will cite you for cruelty to animals.
If animals must be kept at your place of residence for a significant period of time before the sacrifice ceremony make sure the animals are free of unnecessary restraint and if possible are tied to a tree, pole or other site so they can have some movement and make sure that they have food and water according to what is allowed by the traditions of the religion.
In some instances, police will use a local ordinance to interfere with your right to perform animal sacrifice. Such examples are as follows:
A Florida-based NARC member received a citation in August, 2002 for "illegally keeping animals, poultry or fowl in a residential zone" because of the goats and chickens kept in his home in preparation for ritual sacrifices. The particular code provision that he was accused of violating prohibits "1. beehives or the breeding or raising of any insects, reptiles or animals other than customary pets; 2. the keeping, breeding, or maintaining of horses, cattle or goats; and 3. the raising of poultry or fowl." This statute was obviously enacted to prevent the conduct of animal breeding in residential areas, not the temporary holding of animals or pets. This civil code enforcement carried a $510 penalty. NARC assisted the member in obtaining local legal counsel to challenge the citation. The citation is being appealed. However, while the matter is being appealed, code enforcement penalties have continued to accrue and now exceed $11,000, an amount that far exceeds the original civil penalty and which, if allowed to stand, will jeopardize the NARC member's credit rating and home ownership. This case is one that deserves intense scrutiny and legal action, possibly on the same level as NARC's lawsuit against Universal Studios.
Animal sacrifice must be conducted properly in terms of the disposal of animals. Of course most animals that are sacrificed for religious purposes are prepared as food for the ceremonies and is consumed by those practitioners attending the ceremony. There are some instances where sacrificed animals are not eaten. In these instances care must be taken to make sure that the disposal of such animals does not violate health codes and consideration for the public at large. Animals cannot be left in the crossroads in the United States for that constitutes a health hazard and represents an unfair imposition upon the public. Papa Ogu has said that "the land (where the religion is practiced) will dictate what the religion will become." Thus practitioners within the United States must recognize that this places some limitation upon the disposal of animals that cannot be consumed as food. No animal can be left in the crossroads or the cemetery. The National African Religion Congress does not condone the sacrifice of any animals that would normally be considered as pets in America; i.e. dogs and cats. NARC will not support the sacrifice of such animals within the United States. In other countries, the tradition may be different.
Follow through and completion of rites and rituals is important in spiritual work if the work is to be acceptable to the Orisa, Loa, Abosom or other deities. Do not leave work unfinished.
There have been problems in South Florida with the Miami-Dade Police Department. The police there have been interfering with ceremonies based on complaints from the neighbors about drumming and singing. This problem must be eliminated. It is unfair and unconstitutional. The police have no right to interrupt a religious ceremony based on noise complaints from the neighbors. Those same neighbors would not call the police if a group of Pentecostal or Holiness religion were holding a religious service. Even if the neighbors called the police, the police would not act on the complaint and tell the Christians to stop their religious service. Why then should it be any different for practitioners of an African-based religion?
The police must be made to understand that according to the traditions of African-based religions the temples, sanctuaries, houses, or Iles are located where the priests or priestesses live. This is where the godchildren must come for counseling and assistance from the priest or priestess. It is at the home of the priest and priestess that the shrines are located. It is at the house of the priests where the ceremonies for the Orisa, Loa, Abosom and deities must be held. The ceremonies involve drumming, singing, dancing and spiritual possession. Interruption of the service is spiritually damaging and is dangerous to the lives of any priest or priestess who might be in a state of spiritual possession. This problem with the police is not limited to South Florida and it must be confronted and eliminated.
The National African Religion Congress has developed a NARC decal for the front window of the spiritual house. In the event that the police come to the spiritual house to stop the ceremony, NARC is asking all NARC members to do the following:
Direct the attention of any police officer to your NARC ID card and NARC decal and inform them that you are a priest or priestess.
Inform the police that you are conducting a religious ceremony and that you cannot stop.
Inform the police that there is a separation of church and state.
Offer the police officer to call the office of NARC. After hours: 215-548-2118.
Notify NARC immediately and include the name and badge number of the police officer so that we begin a dialogue with them on your behalf.
The National African Religion Congress has worked toward establishing a dialogue with police throughout the United States, especially in those cities where large numbers of practitioners reside (New York, New Orleans, Orlando, Tampa and Los Angeles). NARC offered to conduct seminars and workshops on religious diversity in order to facilitate better understanding between practitioners of African-based religions and the police departments. There has been resistance on the part of the police as well as practitioners. Yet there is a need for dialogue. In the absence of an opportunity for understanding between these two elements, practitioners and civic authorities there will be no recourse except the courts. Legislation is expensive and increases the alienation between both groups. NARC needs the support of its membership to facilitate an effective dialogue between municipal authority and African-based religion.
We have a lot of work to do in order to gain the respect of the larger American Society. However, what we are doing is what every other religion had to do to establish its legitimacy in the eyes of the larger society. There is no short cut. African-based practitioners deserve the right of open religious expression - like all other religions in America.