Hindu Groups Back Couple in Cow Case
BY: STAFF CORRESPONDENT
Apr 14, ANGELICA, NEW YORK (INDIA ABROAD) Several Hindu religious organizations have filed an 'amicus' (friends of the court) brief with the 4th Department Appellate Court in Rochester, New York, in support of Linda and Stephen Voith who are fighting a legal battle to keep cows on their property. The brief expressed concerns that local laws were being misused to discriminate against the American Hindu family who are keeping cows on their property for religious purposes.
The Voiths, followers of the Bhakti Hindu tradition, are appealing a 2003 court injunction ordering them to remove their cows from their property in Angelica village in New York, which is situated next to a local beef farm. The lower court in Allegany County have ruled that the case 'has nothing to do with religion.'
"The Angelica law is selective," said Robert Moest, attorney for the amicus organizations, "It allows animals under some circumstances and not others. A municipality may not decide on a case-by-case basis whether conduct sometimes imbued with religious or spiritual meaning will be allowed. The vice to be guarded against is arbitrary action by officials."
'Clearly the Voith''s rights are being violated,' said Dr. Abhaya Asthana and Gaurang Vaishnav in a statement issued by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America.
'There are double standards being followed: one for the Voiths and another for the rest of the community in Angelica. We consider this to be an act of discrimination.'
"This case is about the right to Due Process and Equal Protection under the law," said Ross Scott, attorney for the Voith family.
"A rural village which allows a commercial beef farm, and allows the Amish to drive through town with horses, ought to allow a Hindu family to keep cows.'
The organizations that have joined the amicus brief are the Hindu American Foundation; BAPS; Vishwa Hindu Parishad of America; Arshya Vidya Gurukulam; JAINA: the Federation of Jain Associations in North America; and the Pusti Margiya Vaishnav Samaj of North America (Vraj)
The Voiths bought a two and a half acre property in Angelica in 1994 and moved there with their cows in the hope of operating a Vedic Cow Protection and Agricultural Center. However, they soon ran into opposition from neighbors and village officials who wanted the Voiths to get a permit for keeping the cows.
As per Angelica village laws, an owner should have at least 10 acres of land on which the farm animals can graze. To overcome this obstacle, the Voiths leased 12 acres of land across the street. Since it was not adjacent to their property, the village objected to the arrangement.
Soon the village sued the Voiths. The couple countered it saying that it was part of their religious beliefs.
During the trial, Judge Michael Nenno of the Allegany County court threatened the family's attorney Ross Scott with sanctions for saying the word 'religion' and then granted the village a mandatory permanent injunction without allowing the family an opportunity to testify or bring in witnesses, the appeal noted.
"Our neighbor runs a beef farm behind our house. He is allowed to raise beef cows and billy goats on a one acre parcel right next to our property," Stephen Voith said. "Only our cows have been banned."
Nikhil Joshi, a lawyer from the Hindu American Foundation said, "the Voith's beliefs about cow protection are long rooted in the Hindu dharma and scripture and must be duly accommodated without unconstitutional disparate interference from the government."
JAINA asked the court 'to be vigilant about the misuse of laws by local government officials in order to ensure that there is no place for bias, bigotry or discrimination based on one's religious affiliation.'
'Adherents to Krishna-oriented traditions engage in practices that uphold the sanctity of the cow. This continues today in rural areas not unlike the agricultural regions of upstate New York,' Deepak Sarma, Professor of Hinduism at Case Western Reserve University, pointed out in a separate submission.
"This case represents the religious and free speech rights of a broad spectrum of Americans concerned with vegetarianism, animal rights, sustainable agriculture and 'Ahimsa' or non-violence," said Linda Voith. "That is why we have continued this legal battle all these years. We are very grateful for the support we have received from the various groups for the amicus brief."
After Judge Nenno's mandatory order, the couple moved to Lakshmi Cow Sanctuary in Bangor, PA, on an invitation from its owner Dr Shankara Sastri, retired Dean of NYC Technical College of the City University New York. Sastri lives alone there with about three dozen cows for the last few years.
Six months later, they returned to Angelica and decided to appeal the decision.
They have six cows now and are stationed at Alfred, a 20 minutes drive from Angelica, where they visit daily to tend the cows.
Married in 1992 the couple have seven children between them. Stephen joined the ISCKON movement in 1977 and Linda in 1980.
"It was the prasadam at the temple in 56th Street in Mnahattan, NY, that first attracted me to Hinduism," Linda, a New Yorker, admits. Her then husband gave her a copy of the Bhagvad Gita, one of Hinduism's leading philosophical texts, which changed her outlook. "I got answers for many of my questions after reading the Gita," she said.
They followed the advice of Swami Prabhupada for a simple life in a remote area and thus bought the property in Angelica at an auction.
'Cow protection represents the greatest threat against the demonic aspect of American culture that is killing the Mother and Father of human civilization, the Cow and the Bull,' Stephen said.