Cockfighters Invoke Religious Freedom and Cultural Prerogative

by Wayne Pacelle

Far-fetched courtroom strategies are the rage when it comes to cockfighting.

It may be the down season for the blood sport, but from Puerto Rico to Louisiana to Guam, the knives are out in the federal courts when it comes to cockfighting.

The most recent courtroom proceeding comes in Louisiana, where Lloyd Plumbar has mounted a novel defense after a local sheriff nabbed him for violating the state’s 2008 ban on cockfighting.

Plumbar says he is “Pastor at Holy Fight Ministries,” and he’s invoking a “freedom of religion” argument under the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as his get out of jail card.

In the civil action filed in federal court in the Middle District of Louisiana, Jim Holt, Plumbar’s attorney, wrote:

“Reverend Plumbar, Holy Fight Ministries and its congregation hold the sincere religious belief that cockfighting represents that while they strive for CHRIST, they have a necessary symbolic physical manifestation, an epiphany through the fighting cock, a religious mandate of the struggle between good and evil, a struggle for life or death for the Salvation of the soul, and thus cockfighting is an integral and essential part of their religious faith.”

The judge, of course, was having none of it.  “Unrestricted freedom to exercise one component of Plaintiffs’ religious practice is outweighed by the public’s interest, as reflected in duly passed legislation that aims to combat animal cruelty,” he wrote in July, in siding with the government.

Puerto Rico’s Cockfights and Political Leaders Conspire to Violate Federal Law

There is similar rhetoric from Puerto Rico’s cockfighters and the Commonwealth’s political establishment.

There, the cockfighters’ attorneys, now pleading their case before U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, argue that “the criminalization of cockfighting infringes” on “the valued rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association of all Puerto Ricans.”  The Commonwealth of Puerto Rico filed an amicus brief siding with the cockfighters, after passing a sham law that claimed it was okay to conduct fights on the island as long as the cockfighters didn’t use birds from the states.

Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Gustavo Gelpi swatted down the original formulation of the cockfighters’ arguments and their argument that intra-territorial cockfighting is okay. “Neither the Commonwealth’s political statutes, nor the Territorial Clause, impede the United States Government from enacting laws that apply to all citizens of this Nation alike, whether as a state or territory,” wrote Judge Gelpi, a native of Puerto Rico.

How do we know cockfighters are continuing to flout the law?  Because after AWA and the Animal Wellness Foundation announced a rewards program, dozens of Puerto Ricans wrote to us, expressing their disdain for cockfighting and sharing very granular details of illegal cockfights.  .

They provided us with hard evidence of cockfighting at 25 venues, at least 15 of which continue to operate on a regular basis. Venue operators continue to promote these illegal activities with physical posters and social media posts. (Animal Wellness Action has posted copies of some of these promotional materials here.)

So here we have the Commonwealth’s political leaders and the cockfighters in their federal court pleadings saying the federal law explicitly bans cockfighting — recognizing that our system of government affords judicial redress after the legislative branch acts — but they’ve been conspiring to break the law all the while.

The federal judges hearing the cockfighters’ appeal should take note of the Commonwealth’s defiance.

The United States Stepping Up Against Cockfighting on Guam and in the Virgin Islands

Our pleadings are all submitted in the concurrent case on Guam. A U.S. District Court Judge there should soon render an opinion.

“Cultural rights merit consideration,” wrote Animal Wellness Action and other groups in their amicus curiae brief supporting the United States in the case on Guam, “but Congress has weighed the import of cultural attachment to cockfighting against its detrimental effects on interstate commerce and concluded that no justification exists to continue permitting the abhorrent practice in the United States.”

In the U.S. Virgin Islands — also a cockfighting hot spot — the U.S. Attorney there today signaled today that she won’t tolerate staged combat between animals. “Law enforcement officers in our communities have received recent reports that cockfighting matches are continuing, even though the federal law prohibiting these activities went into effect on December 20, 2019,” U.S. Attorney Gretchen C.F. Shappert announced. “Cockfighting promoters need to understand that participation in an animal fighting venture is a felony that carries a penalty up to five years in prison.”

Indeed, the rule of law matters, as U.S. Attorney Shappert recognizes. And like other law enforcement officials, she understands there’s no conflict between enforcing our anti-cruelty laws and honoring free speech or freedom of religion.  There is no tension between these values and principles despite vain efforts by animal cruelty practitioners to conflate them. That’s a legal reality that should come into sharper focus as the cockfighters pursue their dead-end journey through the U.S. court system.

Wayne Pacelle is founder of Animal Wellness Action and President of the Center for a Humane Economy.

Posters of illegal cockfighting activities in Puerto Rico made and advertised after the law banning cockfighting went into effect.

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