African Religions Attracting Americans

Associated Press, Aug. 9, 2003
http://www.nytimes.com/

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Voodoo, Santeria and other religions with African roots are drawing followers in the United States among immigrants and black Americans interested in their ancestry, their leaders say.

But their practice can result in clashes with neighbors and police over rituals such as animal sacrifices and sacred drumming — especially since they’re mostly conducted at home, in residential neighborhoods.

“This is a country founded on freedom of religion,” said George Ware, an organizer with the National African Religion Congress. The group, formed five years ago, has members from a half-dozen religious groups and is meeting this week in its home base in Philadelphia.

“They (mainstream religions) are all given room and space to function within this country, and we are asking for the same,” Ware said.

When voodoo practitioners held an annual ceremony honoring their ancestral spirits at midnight, neighbors in a sedate section of Philadelphia called police as drumming started.

“We are not happy about the noise, because we don’t want to disturb the neighborhood,” Ware said. But “we have a spiritual obligation to continue.”

Police and neighbors decided to tolerate the noise. But citations over noise ordinances and animal sacrifices have sometimes landed in court, at least once reaching the U.S. Supreme Court.

In 1993, the high court outlawed a Hialeah, Fla., ordinance banning “ritual animal sacrifice,” saying its language violated the First Amendment’s religious freedom clause because it only applied to the religious slaughter of animals.

“Noise ordinances tend to be generally upheld, because they apply to any kind of noise, from loud speakers to advertising vehicles on streets to rock music to religious celebrations,” said Mark Rahdert, a Constitutional law professor at Temple University.

African religions are also grappling with some of the same issues that divide their mainstream counterparts, such as homosexuality.

“I have had a couple — two men who were legally married — and they came to me for marriage counseling,” said Gro Mambo Angela Novanyon Idizol, chairwoman of the congress. “What do you do?”

The couple’s religion does not approve of homosexual behavior or gay marriage, she said.

About 3,000 people from the United States, 17 African countries or countries in which African religions have gained a foothold, are expected at the conference.

The groups are creating religious texts from the spiritual stories that have been passed down orally in nonliterate societies. And, Ware said, they are building relations with neighbors and police.

“We are making progress,” he said. “Today if people call and complain about our organization, the police explain to them that we are only organizing our right to practice religion.”

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