David Pomerantz: Dispute Over Monkey Meat Hits on Religious Freedom

At a hearing earlier this month, Chief Judge Raymond Dearie of U.S. District Court in Brooklyn ruled that Mamie Manneh, 39, of Staten Island, has legal standing to argue that her religious beliefs should exempt her from criminal prosecution for smuggling the contraband bushmeat. [...] Manneh, who is also known as Mamie Jefferson, was charged in January 2006 with smuggling 65 pieces of bushmeat into America from the West African nation of Guinea in violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Government agents seized “skulls, limbs and torsos” of primates, including green monkeys and hamadryas baboons, according to court papers. The meat had been smoked.

The U.S. Supreme Court may have bolstered Manneh’s prospect of winning last year, when it ruled 8 to 0 in favor of exempting a small group in New Mexico from prosecution for using a hallucinogenic plant to make tea. The court in that case, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficiente Uniao De Vegetal, found that practice by followers of a Brazilian religion was protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law passed by Congress that protects groups who use illegal substances for religious purposes. But bushmeat brings new issues into play, including conservation of protected species and public health threats that experts say can stem from eating primates. Diseases linked to primates include HIV, SARS, Ebola, Monkeypox, and Lassa Fever, the federal government says in its complaint in the case, signed by a special agent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Philip Alegranti. [...]

Manneh took the stand for the first time this month, where she testified that she was baptized as a Christian, but that she eats the monkey meat at religious ceremonies like Easter “because monkey from the wildlife is a very smart animal,” according to a court transcript. Her testimony suggests that she practices a hybridized religion that borrows both from Christian concepts and indigenous African religious beliefs. Seventeen congregants of Manneh’s church in Staten Island, the First Christian Church at 54 Thompson St., filed an affidavit in July testifying to the importance of bushmeat for their religious beliefs. “This is something our forefathers did, it is something we learned as children, and it is a part of our treasured relationship with God as African Christians,” the congregants wrote. “We eat bushmeat for our souls,” they said.

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