Giant, smelly snails in Florida: Could there really be a religion angle to this story?

This story stinks. 

I mean, it really stinks.

But that's no commentary — at all — on the quality of journalism. 

Anytime a major newspaper — in this case, the Tampa Bay Times — can cover giant, smelly snails and religion at the same time, far be it from GetReligion to turn up our nose.

Way up high, this hardly seems like a Godbeat tale:

MIAMI — At a little-known government laboratory in South Florida, they keep the snails under lock and key. Sure, any escape would be sloooooow. But giant African land snails are such a threat to humans that the rules say they have to be kept locked away, just in case.
The aptly-named snails can grow to be more than 6 inches long. Wherever they go they leave a trail of smelly excrement. They eat 500 kinds of plants. They produce up to 500 eggs two or three times a year, and because they're hermaphrodites they don't need a mate. If they aren't getting enough lime from the soil for their shells, they will gobble the stucco off the side of a house.
They also carry a parasite that can infect humans with meningitis.

But keep reading, and religion enters the picture — via Africa:

Florida officials often don't know for sure how an invasive pest gets loose in the state — the pythons taking over the Everglades, for instance. But they are pretty sure the giant African land snails that the state has spent more than $6 million to capture and kill were smuggled in by a religious cult that used the snails' mucus in healing rituals.

From there, the Florida newspaper nails two crucial elements of the story. 

• First, the snails' religious role:

According to court documents, the man who brought the snails to Florida is Charles Stewart, of Hialeah, sometimes known as "El Africano" or "Oloye Ifatoku." Stewart practices a traditional African religion called Ifa Orisha, which is often confused with the Cuban Santeria.
In January 2010, state and federal officials raided Stewart's home and found at least 20 of the giant snails in a wooden box in his back yard. He told them he had smuggled them from Africa in his luggage. He had help — a priestess known as "the Godmother" had slipped some snails into the United States by hiding them under her dress on a flight from Nigeria.
Stewart's followers told investigators he would crack off part of a snail's shell and pour the mucus into their mouths to provide them with good health. The followers then became violently ill, according to court records.

Second, the freedom of religious issue involved:

(Oba Ernesto Pichardo, of the Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye in Hialeah) suspects the investigation has moved at a snail's pace because of a U.S. Supreme Court case from 1993 — one he knows well.
After Pichardo launched his Santeria congregation in Hialeah, the Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, the city passed an ordinance banning the animal sacrifices that are one well-known rite of the religion. Pichardo fought the city all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1993, on a 9-0 vote, the high court ruled that the ban violated the church's right to freedom of religion.
Given that ruling, the government knows it must tread lightly in any potential criminal case involving animal sacrifice, even when the sacrifice is a smelly mollusk that makes people sick, Pichardo said. Stewart had no bad intent, he contended, and thus should not be charged.
He pointed out, however, that his own church steers clear of the giant snails. "We do use some Florida land snails in a very few, very limited rituals," he said, "but they are never consumed."

A hat tip to the Pew Research Center for including this story in its daily religion headlines email. Otherwise, I might never have come across it.

And that would have stunk.

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