In United States of America v. Cruz (F.D.N.Y. 2018), Hector Cruz pled guilty to the charge of knowingly attending a cockfighting event (a fight between two roosters) for sport and entertainment in the Bronx, New York, in violation of 7 U.S.C. § 2156(a)(2)(A) (the “Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition”). Despite pleading guilty, Cruz raised a bevy of arguments in his defense to have the charges against him dismissed, based on his contention that the Animal Venture Prohibition infringed on the “God given rights of New York gamecock farmers.” He claimed that the Animal Venture Prohibition violated the First, Second, Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, Ninth, Tenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the US Constitution, but the Court elected not to address many of Cruz’s arguments because he failed to cite legal authority to support them, and many of the arguments were “incomprehensible or irrelevant.” Among the arguments addressed by the Court were Cruz’s claims that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition violates his rights to the free exercise of religion protected by the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (“RFRA”). The Court also addressed Cruz’s claim that the Animal Fighting Venture Prohibition constituted an illegal taking of personal property under the Fifth Amendment.
Cruz’s First Amendment and RFRA claims were premised on an apparent Biblical reference that “God gave man dominion (control and rule) over the earth, animals, fish and fowl, and our Constitution is written to ensure that each person is equal in the freedom and exercise of our God given rights as each individual chooses to believe these rights exist.” The Court ruled that the Animal Venture Prohibition passed constitutional muster, as it was a neutral law that was generally applicable, and was rationally related to the legitimate government interest of the “prevention of cruelty to animals.”
In analyzing Cruz’s RFRA claim, the Court noted that even laws that are neutral and generally applicable can violate RFRA if they substantially burden religious exercise without a compelling government interest advanced in the lease restrictive means possible. The Court determined that Cruz could not prevail on his RFRA claim because his supposed religious beliefs were not sincerely held:
Here, Cruz has failed to make a showing that the act of engaging in animal fighting ventures stems from sincerely held beliefs that are religious in nature. Although Cruz continually refers to the “God given” dominion of man over animals, he does not identify any specific religious tenets or practices that are burdened by the statute. Nor does he identify any religion or denomination from which his beliefs derive. Indeed, in “attest[ing] to the importance of the God given rights of the American farmer,” Cruz cites quotations in which the founding fathers, including Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, James Madison, and Benjamin Franklin, exalted agriculture. This suggests that Cruz’s beliefs are philosophical or political in nature.
The Court also rejected Cruz’s argument that the Animal Venture Prohibition was an illegal taking of personal property in violation of the Fifth Amendment. Cruz argued that “animals are property” and that the Supreme Court held “the right of ownership of property includes the inherent right to use ones [sic] property.” The Court was not persuaded, instead observing that the Supreme Court has held that there is no taking of personal property if the government proscribes only one particular use of the property (such as its sale), if the owner maintains other rights to the property. Here, the Animal Venture Prohibition proscribed only one specific type of use (animal fighting), without affecting other allowable uses, and did not constitute a taking.