Holy Cows to Family, Nuisance to Neighbors

This rural village in western New York would prefer to be known for its antique shops, its historic district and the spruced-up houses that have helped put a new polish on its faded past. But these days, Angelica may be gaining more notice for its efforts to run off four sacred cows and a goat named Roy.

The village sued Stephen and Linda Voith last year, accusing them of illegally keeping the animals in the backyard of their home on Main Street. The Voiths, who are followers of the Krishna Consciousness movement, say their freedoms are being violated because they keep the animals for religious purposes.

The Voiths say their creatures are holy and should be treated as family pets. "The cow is especially holy because she gives milk," Mr. Voith said. In court documents, the Voiths mention a religious practice called Padayatra, which is a type of chanting with cows and carts in procession. The neighbors consider the cows to be smelly farm animals that attract flies and soil public streets. That three-year-old disagreement, in a community that numbers only 900 residents, has steadily grown more disagreeable, with complaints made to the courts, the state police and even the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Mr. Voith, 47, said that he, his wife and two children were harassed so often that he began videotaping his opponents. One tape shows neighbors gathered near his backyard, chanting gibberish as they cook burgers on a grill decorated with a sign asking, "Are you worshiping God or animals?"

The Voiths said a rock was thrown through a front window, a neighbor charged at them with an all-terrain vehicle and, this month, two neighbors gripped rifles as they stood menacingly just beyond their property line.

"It's really like a public lynching, a witch hunt," Mr. Voith said.

The mayor and other residents said they had seen no evidence that the Voiths had been bullied or treated unfairly.

"People around here are very docile," said a shop owner, Fleurette Pelletier. She said the dispute had nothing to do with faith. "It's the cows," she said. "The smells from that yard in the summer were enough to make you sick."

So far, the courts have ruled that religion is not at issue in the legal case. After a two-day trial this month, the State Supreme Court ordered the Voiths to remove the animals by May 22. The Voiths' lawyer, W. Ross Scott, said the order was stayed pending an appeal. The Appellate Division is scheduled to rule on Wednesday whether the animals can remain until the appeal is decided.

Dairy cows graze on many hills in Allegany County, near the Pennsylvania border. But within the Angelica village limits, a local law requires a permit to keep farm animals on parcels of less than 10 acres. The Voiths live on 2.5 acres, and they lease 10 more nearby.

Nearby homeowners have complained that the family keeps the cows and the goat in the backyard for much of the time, and that they use a public street to take the animals to the leased land. The Voiths, in turn, note that other people in the village have chickens and goats, and that a dairy farm operates just behind their property.

Mayor Peter Johnson, who has fielded dozens of calls from all sides in the dispute, said he went out one night last year with a broom and a shovel to clean up cow droppings.

"The neighbors have legitimate complaints and concerns about the noise, the flies, the smell," Mr. Johnson said. "I don't think anybody in Angelica really cares what anybody else does in their religious practices, as long as it doesn't infringe on anybody else's rights."

Once one of many declining railroad towns in the Southern Tier of New York, Angelica has had a small resurgence in recent years. Storefronts that stood empty have been renovated to accommodate antique shops. The local headquarters of the Grange, a national organization of farmers, is being remodeled as a community center, and real estate values have climbed.

The fight over the cows has hindered efforts to promote the community, Mrs. Pelletier said. "To be enmeshed in this is not good for tourism," she said.

At least one business owner has taken the Voiths' side. "If this is Middle America, it's scary," said Cynthia Petito, owner of the Angelica Inn, a bed-and-breakfast on Main Street. "If you're a little bit different, why should you be run out of town?"

Friction began soon after the Voiths bought their property at a tax sale in 1999. Mr. Voith called the dog warden about loose dogs. Neighbors phoned the police about trespassing. Bad feelings mounted, as did the number of complaints filed by the Voiths and their neighbors.

Jan Aylor and Diane Ward, neighbors who have helped lead efforts to enforce the local law, declined to discuss the rift. "We just want this thing to go away," Mrs. Ward said.

Some say tensions were heightened by what they describe as Mr. Voith's personal manner. After the village began protesting the Voiths' keeping of the animals, Mr. Voith posted large signs in his front yard, protesting the village's actions. He stood on his front steps and chanted for hours at a time.

During the annual Heritage Day celebration, in August, the Voiths practiced Padayatra, and paraded their animals and an ox cart downtown, drumming and chanting as they walked. Some merchants complained that shoppers were frightened by the animals. Mrs. Voith said onlookers had seemed delighted with the spectacle.

Mrs. Voith said she was tired of fighting and had spoken with a real estate agent about selling their property. Mr. Voith vowed to continue the court fight, and said he had taken more drastic steps toward relocating. "I've written a letter to the Indian Embassy, asking for asylum," he said.