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Cruelty Officer May Lose Santeria-Linked Face-Off

(CN) - A Santeria priest lambasted in the media for sacrificing animals may have a religious freedom case against the chief of a New Jersey animal cruelty agency, a federal judge ruled.

Jorge Badillo, who calls himself a santero or priest of the Afro-Caribbean religion, says his prosecution erupted from the discovery of dead chickens near his backyard shed-housed Santeria temple on March 17, 2011.

The sheriff-captain for Monmouth County, described in the court record only by the name Martin, had been executing an unrelated domestic violence warrant and gun search when he found the sacrificed animals, according to Badillo's complaint.

Martin allegedly reported "possible animal cruelty" the next day to Chief Victor Amato of the county's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).

Later that day, Badillo said Amato "let himself in the fenced backyard without permission or a warrant and began taking pictures of the dead animals and the Orishas."

A footnote in the decision defines Orisha as "the deity to which Santerios pray."

Badillo said his sister explained that the chickens had been sacrificed as part of their religion, leading Amato to allegedly state that he "targeted Santeros" and had just arrested two in a nearby town.

Amato allegedly said the family had "no right" to practice Santeria "anywhere in the U.S."

Though the prosecutor's office refused to intervene, Amato threatened arrest if Badillo did not return three hens and a rabbit to a farm and dispose of carcasses, according to the complaint.

Amato allegedly returned the next day and left nine municipal court summonses for both animal abuse and neglect in Badillo's mailbox. The chief also allegedly contacted the local newspaper, which divulged Badillo's home address in a report on his religious practices.

Badillo said the article and charges led some to vandalize his home and cars, threaten his family, and bar his adoption of two children.

The Santero ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of neglect and paid a $200 fine, while the rest of the summonses were dismissed.

His lawsuit named as defendants: Amato and the SPCA; Martin, Monmouth County and its sheriff department, several prosecutors, and Sheriff Shaun Golden; as well as the Freehold Borough Police Department and an officer who accompanied Amato to Badillo's home.

Badillo sought damages and an injunction for conspiracy and violations of his rights to freedom of religion and from illegal search and seizure under the First and Fourth Amendments.

U.S. District Judge Freda Wolfson dismissed the claims against the Monmouth and Freehold last week, but found that Chief Amato is not entitled to qualified immunity on the search and seizure claim because he allegedly entered Badillo's home without a warrant.

"There are no allegations or suggestions that plaintiff was conducting any more acts of animal cruelty such that imminent harm to other animals was likely to occur," the unpublished ruling states. "And, more importantly, it was alleged that Captain Martin contacted Chief Amato a day after he made the observations. This allegation suggests a lack of urgency on the part of the officer." (Emphasis in original).

Amato is also not immune from Badillo's religious freedom claim, the judge ruled.

"Chief Amato should have reasonably known that by charging plaintiff, who is a Santeria priest, with animal cruelty, absent any allegations that plaintiff did not conduct these killings in accordance with the requirements of his religion, would violate plaintiff's clearly established right to conduct sacrificial rituals," Wolfson wrote.

But the court dismissed Badillo's claims for failure-to-train and supervise against the SPCA and county, conspiracy, and constitutional violations against the municipal defendants.

Badillo may move to amend his dismissed claims, however, according to the ruling.

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