At first blush, it was hard to understand why Southampton Town officials would fight a lawsuit brought by a group of churchgoers who claimed their civil rights were violated when they went to Southampton Town Hall on July 26, 2011, to protest against same-sex marriages on the first day such marriages became legal in New York State.
It has been widely reported that police refused to allow them to remain on the steps of Town Hall because the building had been declared a “Bias Free Zone” in 2008, with a sign posted to that effect.
The group, which the Web-based Religion News Service called the Southampton Six, was comprised of the Rev. Donald Havrilla of the Southampton First Gospel Church and five congregants of his and other churches. They alleged their freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection, and right of due process had been violated.
The town, of course, had no choice but to respond to the suit, brought in Federal Court for the Eastern District of New York, and an attorney for the town said it had moved “as expeditiously as necessary” to settle the case after Judge Joseph Bianco refused to dismiss it, finding a potential civil rights issue. As might be expected, settlement took a long time.
The irony is that signs designating public places Bias-Free Zones were initiated by the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, whose intent was to promote civility rather than to “impede upon anyone’s first amendment rights,” as Town Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said last week after some of the terms agreed to were reported.
In a press release last week, the town said it would pay the plaintiffs’ attorney $40,000; that it had rescinded the 2008 resolution, and authorized that new, more carefully worded, signs go up soon “to reinforce the town’s commitment to ensuring that all citizens that the town interacts with will be treated in a bias-free manner.”
In the court of public opinion, it seemed the protesters had won, but the suit never went to trial and the facts about exactly what happened that day in July are in dispute. “We gave some, and they gave some,” Ms. Fleming said, adding that she could not elaborate.
The plaintiffs alleged that they were forced to move from the steps to an area flanked by seven-foot-tall bushes, and that this effectively kept them from interacting with others. Attorneys for the town, however, indicated more was involved, only hinting — because the agreement had not yet been filed with the court and therefore was not official — that protesters may have headed inside the building to the town clerk’s office, where they may have intended to interrupt things.
“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,” the protesters’ attorney told the Religious News Service. I don’t know whether this is a fair or exaggerated reflection about what happened, but the essence of it is a principle on which all sides are likely to agree.