Trenton - A Santeria priest sued county prosecutors, the sheriff and police, claiming his arrest for sacrificing a chicken in his backyard temple interfered with his ability to adopt children.
In his federal complaint, plaintiff Jorge Badillo says he is a santero - a priest in the Afro-Caribbean Santeria religion, which performs animal sacrifices.
Badillo sued Monmouth County, its sheriff and a lieutenant, two county prosecutors, the Freehold Police Department and an officer, the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its employee Victor Amato.
The complaint describes Amato as "Chief of Police for the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals."
It all began, Badillo says in his complaint, when Sheriff's Lt. Martin and a canine officer came to his home, with a warrant, looking for a gun that belonged to Badillo's brother.
"He [Lt. Martin] contacted Victor Amato and made the initial accusations of animal cruelty after seeing a chicken that had been sacrificed in front of the temple in plaintiff's backyard," the complaint states.
Martin and the canine officer found the sacrificed chicken while searching for his brother's gun, Badillo says: "In the course of searching the property for the gun, Lt. Martin and Officer Duda searched the sheds in the yard and required plaintiff to open a large shed with a locked door in the backyard. At the entrance to the shed they observed a dead chicken. Inside the shed Lt. Martin observed plaintiff's temple."
Martin reported the "possible animal cruelty" to Amato, Badillo says.
The next day, March 18, 2011, Amato "entered plaintiff's yard without permission or a warrant to investigate plaintiff for sacrificing a chicken to the Orishas in his role as a Santero," the complaint states. "He later issued 9 summons to plaintiff, each carrying a potential penalty of six months in prison and a one-thousand dollar fine. He is sued in both his individual and official capacities."
The Orishas are spirits, or manifestations of God, in Santeria.
"Upon arrival at plaintiff's residence Chief Amato went around the back of the house, opened the gate and let himself in the fenced backyard without permission or a warrant and began taking pictures of the dead animals and the Orishas," the complaint states.
Badillo says his sister confronted Amato.
"She told Chief Amato that the chicken had been sacrificed as part of their religion and that they had a right to practice their religion. Chief Amato informed her that she had no right to practice Santeria in Monmouth County or in New Jersey or anywhere in the United States."
His sister contacted the Monmouth County Prosecutor's Office, which told her it would not intervene in the situation because Amato was not doing anything illegal, according to the complaint.
It continues: "After photographing the recently sacrificed chicken and 2 bird heads that were drying for sacrificial use and a dead turtle that was being kept outside until the ground thawed enough for burial and a live rabbit, Chief Amato demanded to know whether there were any other animals around. Plaintiff told him that there were 3 guinea hens that he had bought from a farm that morning."
Amato demanded to see the guinea hens and entered Badillo's temple without asking for permission, and "walked around in the temple looking at everything."
Amato took pictures and told Badillo to dispose of the dead animals and take the live animals to a farm or he would return and arrest him, Badillo says.
"Chief Amato returned the next day and left 9 tickets for animal abuse or neglect in plaintiff's mailbox; one ticket for neglect of the pet rabbit, one ticket for neglect for each of the three guinea hens, two tickets relating to the pet turtle, one for failing to keep it properly and one for causing its death, and one ticket for abuse of an animal for each of the 3 birds that had been sacrificed to the Orishas," the complaint states.
"Each ticket carried a maximum penalty of six months in jail and a one thousand dollar fine, potentially exposing plaintiff to four and a half years in jail and nine-thousand dollars in fines."
Badillo claims Amato issued the tickets without any evidence that any of the animals had been abused.
"To sacrifice a sick or maltreated animal to the Orishas or to perform the sacrifice in a way that causes the animal to suffer is prohibited in Santeria as this would be an insult to the Orishas," Badillo says.
Amato then contacted the Asbury Park Press, a local newspaper, and told it about the summons he had issued to Badillo. The Asbury Park Press published an article, in print and online, and included Badillo's address, he says in the complaint.
As a result, Badillo claims, his home and car have been vandalized and he and his family have been threatened.
The newspaper is not a party to the complaint.
Badillo adds: "Plaintiff had been in the process of being approved to adopt 2 children through the Department of Children and Family Services. The criminal charges for animal abuse and neglect issued by Chief Amato have adversely affected his ability to adopt."
Badillo claims the criminal charges were thrown out in municipal court.
"There was no ordinance in effect in Freehold Boro in March of 2011 that prohibited residents from keeping poultry, or from killing their poultry or setting standards for disposal of dead poultry," he says in the complaint.
Badillo says he did pay a $200 fine and pleaded guilty to one count of neglect for failing to provide his pet rabbit with water - though he says he did give it water.
Badillo seeks punitive damages for civil rights violations.
He is represented by Jennifer Meyer-Mahoney of Millstone Township, N.J.