Santeria ceremony
Santeria ceremony (Jorge Royan)

A priest of Santeria—an Afro-Caribbean religion that requires animal sacrifice—can claim his arrest on animal cruelty charges violates the federal constitution, federal judge has ruled in a case of first impression in the Third Circuit.

Ruling on a motion to dismiss a civil rights suit, U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson in Trenton upheld claims of violation of free exercise of religion, as well as of illegal search and seizure, and found that an animal-protection officer who investigated the sacrifices is not entitled to immunity.

U.S. Supreme Court precedent “not only establishes the legitimacy of the Santeria faith, but also its unique practice relating to the ritualistic sacrifice of certain animals,” Wolfson said Tuesday in Badillo v. Amato.

In March 2011, Monmouth County sheriff’s officers went to Jorge Badillo’s Freehold home to execute a domestic-violence warrant and found a shed containing a personal temple and several dead chickens.

One officer contacted Victor Amato, the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals’ chief of humane law enforcement.

Amato, without a search warrant, went to Badillo’s house, entered the backyard and photographed the temple, the chicken carcasses, a dead turtle and two bird heads.

Amato allegedly said Badillo had no right to practice Santeria and added that he was familiar with the religion and had arrested two other people recently for animal sacrifice.

Amato, under threat of arrest, also directed Badillo to dispose of the dead animals and return several live ones to the farm where he bought them.

A sheriff’s officer and a Freehold Police officer accompanied Amato but did not participate in the search.

Amato obtained nine municipal court summonses charging animal abuse and neglect, and allegedly reported the incident to the Asbury Park Press, which published an article.

Badillo pleaded guilty to one count of animal neglect and paid a $200 fine.

Last year he filed suit, claiming, among other things, that his First and Fourth Amendment rights were trampled. In addition, his car was vandalized, his children were threatened and his efforts to adopt two children were thwarted, he claimed.

The suit named Amato as well as the SPCA, the Monmouth County Sheriff’s Department and the sheriff, a sheriff’s officer, county prosecutors and the Freehold Police Department and officers.

Amato sought dismissal, claiming qualified immunity. On Tuesday, Wolfson denied the motion, citing Church of the Lukumi Bablu Aye v. Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), where the Supreme Court voided municipal ordinances barring animal sacrifice issued after a Santeria temple was constructed in the town. The court “was very clear regarding the recognition of the Santeria religion and its practices,” including sacrifice, Wolfson said.

It is “reasonable to find…Amato would be familiar with the Supreme Court case law concerning the subject of animal cruelty” and the “illegality of punishing or discriminating against a person because of his religion,” she added.

Criminally charging Badillo without evidence of deviation from religious standards “would violate Plaintiff’s clearly established right to conduct sacrificial rituals,” the judge said.

Wolfson dispensed with Amato’s argument that religious claims could nullify the state’s animal cruelty statute—the right “is not unfettered,” because the sacrifices must conform to Santeria requirements, including humaneness, she said.

Santeria requires sacrificing animals by severing the carotid artery.

Wolfson upheld Badillo’s illegal-search-and-seizure claim, rebuffing Amato’s defense that exigent circumstances authorized a warrantless search.

“[N]othing in the pleadings suggest that any exigent circumstances existed,” the judge said, noting that Amato wasn’t notified of the dead chickens until the day after they were found, which “suggests a lack of urgency.”

Amato’s alleged hostility toward Santeria “calls into question [his] motive,” she added.

Wolfson dismissed all claims against the SPCA itself, and the Monmouth County and Freehold defendants. She also struck a conspiracy claim against Amato and the other defendants.

Badillo’s lawyer, Millstone solo Jennifer Meyer-Mahoney, says the court’s recognition of Santeria as a legitimate religion was “very important to my client.”

“This is not a marginal person,” Meyer-Mahoney says of Badillo, himself a Monmouth County employee. “This is a middle-class guy with a middle-class job.”

There’s no Third Circuit or N.J. district court precedent on Santeria. Meyer-Mahoney says she’s been in touch with the Lukumi plaintiff, Ernesto Pichardo, who has helped find experts.

Amato’s lawyer, Douglas Motzenbecker of Gordon & Rees in Florham Park, did not return a reporter’s call on Wednesday.