Cindy Loose | Washington Post
Three Milwaukee Methodists fined $25,500 for worshiping with a sister church in Havana without the permission of the U.S. government are challenging the rules that severely restrict travel to Cuba. The Methodists claim the rules abridge their freedom of religion and are racially discriminatory.
The Methodists were part of a six-member delegation that visited their sister church via Canada without applying for a special permit. (Religious reasons are one of the possible exceptions to a virtual ban on travel to Cuba, but the application process, the Methodists knew, can be lengthy and imposing.)
The Bush administration said early last month that it would further limit U.S. travel to Cuba, while spending millions to promote democracy on the communist island.
Lawyer Art Heitzer said that at the time his Methodist clients were fined, in 1999, U.S. rules not only gave Cuban Americans more freedom to visit Cuba—people with family in Cuba could visit once a year for humanitarian reasons—but also explicitly stated that Cuban Americans could not be fined for a first offense. His clients, on the other hand, were socked the first time out. It’s taken four years to challenge the fines because, until recently, the United States had no office set up to hear cases.
By the way, the selective prosecution issue cited above is now moot because the Bush administration threw the doors wide open last year for those visiting family in Cuba—i.e., Cuban Americans—even as it clamped down on travel for other Americans.
Molly Miller, a spokeswoman for the Office of Foreign Assets Control, said she could not comment on the case. OFAC, a branch of the Treasury Department, is charged with tracking international drug lords, terrorists who traffic in weapons of mass destruction and Americans who travel to Cuba.