The Town of Southampton, NY has changed its course after being sued in federal court for allegations of multiple aggressive rights violations after threatening six Long Island residents, including a pastor and five members of three diverse local churches. Under a settlement agreement, the Southampton Board of Supervisors agreed to: repeal a Town resolution which created a constitutionally problematic “Bias Free Zone” at the front steps of the Town Hall, physically remove all “Bias Free Zone” signs marking multiple public areas, and pay attorneys fees and legal costs.
In entering the settlement, the plaintiffs refused to accept any monetary damages. “This has been about the violation of individual rights,” Pastor Donald Havrilla said, “not about money. We don’t want others to suffer at the hands of their local government.”
After almost a year of litigation at taxpayer expense, Southampton officials signed the settlement, bringing closure to an event that started with blatant violations of the Constitutional freedoms of this small group of mostly Senior Citizens. On July 26, 2011, the first date on which Southampton Town could legally solemnize same-sex marriages, this handful of local citizens gathered at the Southampton Town Hall to peacefully stand for traditional marriage.
Immediately they were forced by the Town’s police to relocate to a confined area flanked by seven-foot tall bushes that kept them from legally, conversationally interacting with others on the Town Hall steps. Previously, the town had allowed much larger groups without religious affiliations to completely occupy and even block those same steps while exercising their free speech rights. These six people were threatened with arrest if they did not remove themselves from the Town’s “Bias Free Zone” and relocate to the Town’s imposed “Free Speech Zone.”
“I was shocked at how quickly we were forced, under threat of arrest, to move and stay clear of the front steps, and fearful of what that meant for the future of free speech here in my hometown,” said Pastor Havrilla. “I thank God for this victory, and for safeguarding the rights of all citizens and groups, regardless of their beliefs. This is protection for everybody, liberal or conservative, from the abuse of power by a local municipality.”
The Complaint filed in Federal Court asserts multiple rights violations by Town officials, including the individuals’ rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection under the law, and the right to due process. The irony of the experience was not lost on these citizens: In 1640, Southampton was settled by a small group of Puritans fleeing religious persecution in England and who landed in the Hamptons at what is now known as Conscience Point. It is the oldest English settlement in New York.
When trial attorney Stephen Dunn heard the victim’s story, he knew he had to take action. “Local public officials do not have the constitutional authority to relegate people to the back of the bus in the public forum because of their religious views,” states Dunn. “It’s no accident that the First Amendment protects the free exercise of religion, even before freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The tragedy is that it took the filing of a lawsuit in order to arrive at this victory, but it proves that freedom truly is never more than a generation from extinction. Repealing the resolution that created the Town’s selectively enforced ‘Bias Free Zone’ was clearly the right course of action, and we commend the Town for doing so.”
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