N.J. Santeria priest sues SPCA

A Monmouth County, N.J., man is suing law enforcement and animal protection officials for what he claims is discrimination against him for sacrificing animals as part of his religion, Santeria, according to a civil filing this week.

Victor Badillo, 49, of Freehold, claims he was charged with nine counts of animal cruelty after an official with the Monmouth County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and local police violated his rights by searching his property. Authorities found severe chicken heads, a dead turtle, three guinea hens and a pet rabbit.

They also defiled his Santeria temple where Badillo, who says he is a Santero — a Santeria priest — worshipped inside a tool shed in the backyard, the lawsuit filed Wednesday in federal court said.

"[SPCA police] Chief [Victor] Amato entered the temple without permission or purification and photographed the Orishas, both actions that are forbidden in Santeria," the lawsuit claims. "Amato, who claims to be knowledgeable about Santeria, intentionally defiled sacred space and objects."

A message left tonight for Amato was not immediately returned.

Badillo's problems began March 17, 2011, the day before Amato is claimed to have shown up and found the dead birds, dead turtle, a pet rabbit and three guinea hens. On March 17, a county sheriff's officer showed up with a warrant to search Badillo's property for a gun belonging to Badillo's brother, according to the lawsuit.

The next day, Amato arrived and "let himself in the fenced backyard without permission or a warrant and began taking pictures of the dead animals and the Orishas," the suit states.

The dead turtle was unrelated to the practice of Santeria, according to the suit, and having died in cold weather, the Badillo family was waiting for the ground to thaw to bury the pet.

The suit also alleges there was no ordinance in effect in Freehold Borough at the time that prohibited residents from keeping poultry; killing their poultry; or setting standards for disposal of dead poultry.

Badillo is seeking punitive damages and injunctive relief requiring the Monmouth County SPCA from targeting Santeros, according to the lawsuit.

Contact Brian X. McCrone at 215-854-2267 or bmccrone@philly.com. Follow @brianxmccrone on Twitter.

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