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.