FREEHOLD — A Monmouth County animal-cruelty law enforcement group paid $40,000 to a priest who claims his religious right to sacrifice chickens was violated when he was slapped with cruelty charges.

The Freehold Santerian priest, Jorge Badillo, filed the lawsuit in 2013 in U.S. District Court of New Jersey against the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and its chief, Victor Amato.

Both sides eventually settled the lawsuit out of court in 2014. A copy of the settlement was uncovered this week by John Paff, an open-government advocate from Somerset County who posts public records on his blog.

As part of the settlement, the local SPCA agreed to provide its officers with sensitivity training on the Santeria religion.

Badillo claims to be a santero, a priest in the Afro-Caribbean Santerian religion— a religion that practices animal sacrifice but prohibits killings that cause the animal to suffer. 

The lawsuit states Amato was alerted of possible animal cruelty after police searched the home for a gun that belonged to Badillo's brother on March 17, 2011, but instead found a dead chicken lying outside of a locked shed that served as Bardillo’s temple. 

On March 18, 2011, Amato entered the backyard without a warrant and took photos of two dead birds and one dead chicken that were "drying for sacrificial use," but did not collect the animals to determine if they were abused before being sacrificed. According to the lawsuit, there was no evidence the birds were abused prior to sacrifice. 

Amato, who also had previously arrested two santeros in Spring Lake in 2008, allegedly said that Badillo "had no right to practice Santeria in Monmouth County or in New Jersey or anywhere in the United States." But according to the lawsuit, there was no law in Freehold in March 2011 that prohibited residents from sacrificing animals.

On March 19, 2011, Amato issued nine tickets for animal cruelty, for which he could have faced more than four years in prison and $9,000 in fines, according to the lawsuit.

That same month, Amato also told the Asbury Park Press about the summons and the newspaper published a story that included Badillo's home address, leading to Badillo's cars being vandalized and his family being threatened, the lawsuit states. Badillo was also in the process of adopting two children, but claimed the charges negatively affected his chances of adoption.

The criminal charges were dropped in municipal court when Badillo plead guilty to one count of neglect of his pet rabbit and agreed to pay $200.

Badillo took the case to federal court in 2013 on charges that Amato violated his First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights.

He agreed to drop the lawsuit after reaching a $40,000 settlement, in which he also agreed to never adopt animals from SPCA. As part of the agreement, the SPCA agreed to train their humane officers on the Santeria religion.

In agreeing to settle the cases, the SPCA did not admit to any wrongdoing. Both sides agreed to not discuss details of the case or the settlement. The documents of the case, however, remain public records under state law.

Also on New Jersey 101.5:


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