Krishna believers' bid to keep animals heads to federal court

By JOHN F. BONFATTI
News Staff Reporter

3/15/2002

DENNIS C. ENSER/Buffalo News: Linda and Steven Voith say the farm animals they keep on their 3-acre home site in Angelica are an integral part of their religion. [The Voith's children with some of their animals]

 

A federal court may soon be asked to decide the fate of four cows and a goat. Their owners, Krishna Consciousness believers in the Allegany County village of Angelica, are accused of illegally housing the animals within village limits.

The New York Civil Liberties Union on Thursday announced its intention to file a federal lawsuit in April over the "malicious prosecution" of Stephen and Linda Voith, Krishna Bhaktivedanta followers who maintain the animals they keep on their 3-acre homesite in the village are an integral part of their religion.

"There seems to be overwhelming evidence of (malicious prosecution)," said Jeanne-Noel Mahoney, executive director of the NYCLU's western district office in Buffalo.

"The courts keep sidestepping the issue of their religion, as if this doesn't have anything to do with this, but it quite obviously does," she said. "The officials in Angelica have been making it possible for the residents to harass the Voiths."

The announcement comes two days after Allegany County Court Judge James E. Euken upheld the conviction of Stephen Voith on charges he violated a village ordinance restricting farm animals within the village limits. He was also found guilty of violating a village noise ordinance.

The farm animal ordinance limits such animals to village properties of 10 acres or more, or requires landowners with less than 10 acres to get a permit. The Village Board turned down Voith's permit application.

The village ordinance "is a health and safety law that applies equally throughout the village of Angelica," Euken wrote in his decision. "Its terms are clear. It applies to everyone."

David Pullen, the village's attorney, and Raymond Bulson, the former village attorney who prosecuted the initial charges, said religion has nothing to do with Voith's convictions.

"I didn't see any religious issues to begin with, but they (the Voiths) did, so that's what caused all this," said Bulson, who has been retained by the village as a special counsel to prepare proceedings aimed at forcing the Voiths to remove the animals from their property.

Bulson made his statements before the NYCLU announced its intentions, and couldn't be reached to comment on the proposed federal lawsuit. Pullen, who also spoke before the NYCLU announcement, was unavailable to comment on that development.

Linda Voith said she was disappointed at losing the appeal but "overjoyed" at hearing that the NYCLU plans to join their legal battle.

"They have been following our case for months," she said. "They've told me this case has a lot of potential for setting precedents, and it's been very validating having them agree with our strong conviction that this is a situation of religious discrimination and equal protection under the law."

Krishna Bhaktivedanta is an offshoot of Krishna Consciousness, a Hindu-based faith whose followers are known to many in this country as Hare Krishna. The Voiths say cows and bulls are central participants in their religious ceremonies.