- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 22, 2017

A New Jersey animal shelter’s annual pet blessings has prompted a federal lawsuit by a group called American Atheists Inc. of Cranford.

The Bergen County Animal Shelter is accused of violating the First and 14th amendments of the U.S. Constitution over two events held in 2016 and 2017. Each event featured a member of the Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy in North Arlington.

Plaintiffs say that animal blessings at the facility are tantamount to an endorsement of religion. They seek an injunction to stop the annual event, and legal fees.

“I’ve lived in New Jersey for more than 20 years,” David Silverman, president of American Atheists, said in a statement, NJ.com reported Tuesday. “When I walk into a government building to use government services, the government should be absolutely neutral on religious matters. Allowing a Franciscan friar to conduct religious services with staff is the antithesis of neutrality.”

The group’s lawsuit claims that fellow plaintiff Candice Yaacobi was treated as an “inferior” person during an event.

“Not only were the shelter’s actions unconstitutional, they were completely unnecessary,” the group’s staff attorney, Geoffrey T. Blackwell, told NJ.com. “I thought it was well-settled that all dogs already go to heaven.”

County officials declined to comment due to the pending litigation.

Shelter director Deborah Yankow is also listed as a defendant in the case, which was filed with the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey Newark Division.

• Douglas Ernst can be reached at dernst@washingtontimes.com.

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