Atheists sue after New Jersey shelter's 'blessing of animals' by generic religious order

On the face of it, the group American Atheists would appear to have a clear case: A cleric came to a county-funded animal shelter in northern New Jersey not once, but at least two years in a row, to "bless" animals in the shelter's care.

That's not the "blessing of the animals" we see in churches across the country, as exemplified by the video above.

But is this the kind of separation of church and state issue that rises to the level of the 1963 Supreme Court Abington School District v. Schempp Bible-readings-in-school decision, from which the late Madalyn Murray O’Hair founded the group? Who, exactly, is the religious group behind the blessings? Does it matter from a #journalism perspective? And why are there some important religion facts missing from this report?

I'll get to that first question in a moment. Let's first see what NJ.com, the Newhouse newspaper chain's Garden State website, has to say about how the "Atheists sue to stop blessing of shelter animals" began: 

A New Jersey atheist group best known for its national billboard campaign against Christmas now has its hackles up over an event that it calls unconstitutional -- the annual blessing of the animals at the Bergen County Animal Shelter.
The group, American Atheists Inc. of Cranford, claims in a federal lawsuit that the Teterboro shelter's event, in which animals are blessed by a Franciscan reverend, violates the First and 14th amendments.
It seeks an injunction against the county's participation, as well as legal fees. Bergen County, the shelter and its director, Deborah Yankow, are named in the suit.
Photographs of the events on the shelter's Facebook page show Reverend Kenneth Reihl of the Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy in North Arlington blessing small animals, from "Bugsy the Bunny" to "Pittie puppy Petunia."

Now, the question of prayer and blessings in public spaces is a long-debated one, to be sure. But there's no law of which I'm aware that prevents me (or you) from walking into a public building, even a government-funded animal shelter, and offering a prayer for those homeless animals needing care. That did not stop one atheist from taking offense, the paper noted:

The shelter also promoted this year's event on Facebook reminding residents that they could bring their pets in to be blessed.
The group wrote Yankow a letter ahead of its event this year, asking for it to be canceled, according to the complaint. The group did not receive a response.
Candice Yaacobi, a North Arlington resident who is also a plaintiff, says in the suit that when she went to adopt a dog she saw Reihl "in full Franciscan vestmants." [sic]
"As a humanist atheist, being forced into an encounter with a member of clergy in order to avail herself of government services sent Candice the message that the BCAS and Bergen County regarded her as inferior to those citizens who happened to adhere to the favored religious view," the group wrote in its complaint.

This begs the question, of course, of how Yaacobi would've felt if she'd shown up at the shelter at the same time a Roman Catholic priest, a Buddhist monk, a Jewish Rabbi or a Muslim imam was there to also adopt a pet, but was wearing their "vestments." Would she have felt "forced into an encounter" under those circumstances?

I did something the NJ.com reporter didn't do, and that was to reach out to Prof. Robin Fretwell Wilson of the University of Illinois-Champaign Law School. Wilson, whom I've quoted on several occasions, believes in trying to find a middle path when confronting challenging issues.

"I think the tipping point was the pre-organization that has allowed just a Franciscan to do prayers," Wilson said via email after reviewing the story. "I suppose we could take a page from Town of Greece. There the court concluded that the context surrounding the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause shows the framers never meant to prohibit legislative prayer.  I doubt they meant to limit puppy prayer, either."

Now, that wasn't so difficult, was it, NJ.com? You're reporting a controversial story, so go out and find an expert who can comment. I've dealt with Wilson several times over the years, so I'm not unknown to the good professor. But I distinctly recall that Wilson was as courteous to me the first time as she was in our most recent exchange.

The other #Fail in my book was that we learn nothing in the story about the Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy. At first glance, it would appear to be a group connected with the Roman Catholic Church, which, after all, claims St. Francis as its own. (I believe there's also a current pope who adopted the saint's name for himself, despite his official affiliation with the Jesuits.)

That impression -- which may be only in the eye of the reader -- would be incorrect.

According to the group's website: "The Franciscan Order of the Divine Mercy, FODM is a self-governing Ecumenical Order of Franciscans open to all Christians that wish to be a part of our Franciscan Chrism. We are under the protection of the Anglican Church of the Americas."

So how large is this "Franciscan Order"? How are its clergy recognized? Do they do anything else?

I realize this is a news story and not a long-form investigative report, but surely a couple of words about FODM could've been added. Readers are left in the dark, and that's not a nice place to be.

Initial Image: Blessing of animals San Giacomo Church, Trieste, Italy, October 4, 2016, by Maurizio Costanzo, via Flickr under Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.

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