A heated debate over freedom of religion in Brazil has gone to court. Legal representatives of Umbanda and Candomble spiritist groups are pressing a lawsuit against Baptist pastor Joaquim de Andrade, 41, and Aldo dos Santos Menezes, 33, a deacon of the Anglican Church, in connection with an annual evangelistic outreach on the beaches of Sao Paulo state.
Spiritists accuse the two men of violating Brazil's "hate crime" law by distributing evangelistic tracts that, they say, disparage Iemanja, an African deity they worship as "Goddess of the Sea." The plaintiffs also charge Andrade and Menezes with "inciting evangelicals to commit acts contrary to the liberty of religious belief," in connection with their part in mobilizing Christians to share the gospel at a spiritist festival celebrated each December at a popular Iemanja shrine at Praia Grande.
At a hearing on April 16, Sao Paulo judge Osvaldo Palotti Jr. found Andrade and Menezes guilty of the charges and fined them each 1,000 reais (about $300). He warned the men that if they did not stop proselytizing spiritists at the festival, they would face stiffer consequences next time.
The hate crime statute, technically known as Federal Law number 9.459, declares it a crime to "practice, induce, or incite discrimination or prejudice against race, color, ethnicity, religion or national origin" and mandates one to three years in jail and a fine for offenders.
Following the hearing, Andrade and Menezes refused to pay the fine and filed a petition on April 28 to annul the decision.
"To sign this 'agreement' (to pay the fine) would be a victory for the Umbandistas who are trying to deny us our religious freedom," Andrade said. "It would mean admitting guilt and giving the impression that Christians are somehow engaging in criminal activities by preaching and practicing their faith."
Andrade has helped organize the outreach to spiritists, known as the "Coast for Christ Crusade," since its inception in 1984. Participants attend training sessions to learn about spiritism and how to relate to the thousands of devotees who attend the annual Iemanja festival. The trainings are sponsored by AGIR, an evangelical research and outreach agency in Sao Paulo which Andrade co-directs.
Paul Carden, executive director of the U.S.-based Centers for Apologetics Research, took part in the coastal crusades while living in Brazil in the 1980s. "A lot of psychics and mediums sort of set up shop on the beaches, and people line up to get a psychic reading or receive some sort of mediumistic blessing," he said.
"So some of our people would set up places to talk to spiritists about what was bothering them and counsel and pray for them. This, of course, is in a public place, on a municipal beach where the basic laws of free expression prevail."
Friction between spiritists and evangelicals arose from an email message Andrade sent to a Christian electronic bulletin board in October 2001, announcing plans for that year's outreach. Spiritists reacted to the notice with outrage, bombarding Andrade with email messages and phone calls warning him to call off the crusade. The Praia Grande sheriff's department informed Andrade of a criminal complaint against him that could result in one to five years imprisonment.
The hostility surprised Andrade and his associates, but they went ahead with plans as in previous years. Immediately after the December 2001 festival, the Supreme Umbanda Entity of the State of Sao Paulo pressed charges against Andrade and Menezes, who authored a tract distributed at the Iemanja festival.
The leaflet carried an image of the goddess on the cover along with the title, "The Cult [or Worship*] of Iemanja." Spiritists claim the tract's assertion that Iemanja worship is based on legend represents a "prejudicial message" against their faith and is thus punishable by law.
"Our organization desires to stop prejudicial practices, since it does not believe that one's beliefs should be imposed upon another based on the fallacious argument that his are better," they argue.
Andrade counters that, unlike historical faiths such as Islam and Christianity, Afro-Brazilian Spiritism is based on folk legends. "They can believe them if they want to, but they must realize they are fairy tales," he said. "To forbid saying that is what should be considered religious intolerance."
Dr. Davi Teixeira, a law professor at the University of Sao Paulo, has filed a motion asserting judicial irregularities in the case. The appeal cites the absence of the district attorney during the hearing and the judge's refusal to allow defendants to confer with their legal counsel, Dr. Cicero Duarte. Teixeira also contends that the plaintiffs' case was not sufficient to prove a violation of the law.
However, the evangelical community recognizes that much larger legal issues are at stake in this landmark case.
"This is a precedent-setting case," Carden said. "If Christians cannot freely share their faith with interested bystanders in a public place, without the potential of some punishment under the pretext of having committed a hate crime, then this profoundly alters the spiritual equation in that country, which until now has enjoyed wide-ranging religious freedoms."
*The term "culto" carries both meanings in Portuguese, Brazil's national language.