When U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors found a hairy monkey arm hidden in Mamie Manneh's New York City garage, she claimed it appeared "as a gift from God in heaven."
The inspectors didn't buy it. Federal agents slapped Manneh with smuggling charges, saying she illegally imported 12 cardboard boxes filled with the "skulls, limbs and torsos" of endangered monkeys. Manneh countered that eating monkey meat is part of her religion, and now the case is turning into a clash between competing government interests: religious liberty, public health, and protection of endangered species.
Manneh, a West African immigrant, attends a Staten Island church that combines Christianity with African tribal customs. She and other congregants eat monkey meat (or bushmeat) on baptisms, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, and weddings. Her supporters said in a sworn statement, "We eat bushmeat for our souls."
The meat comes from Africa's endangered green monkey, and the federal government argues that it has an interest in conserving the species. A criminal complaint also cautioned against monkey meat's potential health risks, including "diseases like Lassa fever, Ebola, HIV, SARS and monkeypox."
Roger Severino, legal counsel for the Becket Fund, told WoW the Becket Fund has advised Manneh's lawyers and maintains that conservation shouldn't trump religious liberty: "The Endangered Species Act didn't repeal the First Amendment." He also said that public health concerns are irrelevant to the facts of the case since the meat was smoked, dried and safe for consumption.
Yes, eating monkey meat is foreign to Western culture, but Severino said "the First Amendment protects unfamiliar religions." The government allows other religious groups an exemption for illegal or imported substances, Severino said, and "the government can't pick and choose what religion it likes and doesn't like based on taste."