Santeria Religious Sacrifice Held Constitutionally Protected Activity

, New Jersey Law Journal

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Santeria ceremony
Santeria ceremony

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.

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