Miami Herald
By Michael Vasquez

Because of his religious beliefs, he was almost outlawed in Hialeah. Now, he is almost a City Council candidate.

Ernesto Pichardo — the president of a prominent Santería church that took the city of Hialeah to the Supreme Court over laws passed in the late 1980s — says he is considering a run in Hialeah’s Nov. 4 elections. Pichardo has not decided which of the four incumbent council members he will challenge if he enters the race.

On Tuesday, Pichardo held a press conference to announce he has formed an ”exploratory committee” that will look into whether he should run this year, wait until 2005 and challenge incumbent Mayor Raul Martinez or simply not run at all.

A final decision should come within a month or so, he said. Pichardo became a well-known — and somewhat controversial — religious figure after winning a landmark 1993 Supreme Court case against Hialeah, which had passed laws banning animal sacrifice. Pichardo said those laws prevented his Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye from functioning in the city. The Supreme Court agreed, finding animal sacrifice to be a protected form of religious expression.

Pichardo’s lawsuit endeared him to some Santería practitioners but irritated others. Some still object to Pichardo’s attempts at institutionalizing Santería — a religion historically practiced in private — by forming a church.

Pichardo counters that the need for a church was demonstrated by his lawsuit: In his mind there has to be an entity that can stand up and defend the religion’s practices.

”The fact is this institution is not invasive to the home worship,” Pichardo said Monday. “It reinforces it and actually preserves it and protects it.”

Late last year, Pichardo’s name was submitted by the union representing city employees for a place on Hialeah’s Personnel Board. The City Council took no action on the nomination, saying additional nominees were needed so the city would have a field to choose from.

Pichardo accused city officials of deliberately stalling his appointment because he represented potential opposition and he ultimately withdrew his name from the list.

The nomination dispute served as a reminder of what was wrong with Hialeah city government, Pichardo said.

”We saw the council did not act in good faith, the mayor did not act in good faith,” he said. “I requested meetings to discuss my appointment that were rejected.”

Hialeah City Council President Julio Robaina on Monday defended the council’s actions, adding that he had worried at the time Pichardo was nominated that the church president would use the board appointment for ”political purposes.” Robaina felt that would have been inappropriate. ”Maybe I was right,” Robaina said, referring to Pichardo’s potential candidacy.

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