Southampton, NY (PRWEB) October 28, 2013
The Town of Southampton has changed its course after being sued in federal court for allegations of multiple rights violations of six Long Island residents, including a pastor and five members of three diverse local churches. Under a settlement agreement entered last week, the Southampton Board of Supervisors agreed to: repeal a Town resolution which created a “Bias Free Zone” at the front steps of the Town Hall, physically remove all of the large “Bias Free Zone” signs marking multiple public areas, and to pay attorneys fees and legal costs.
In entering the settlement, the six plaintiffs refused to personally accept any monetary damages, which they would have been entitled to under the law. “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.”
The lawsuit was filed in early December, 2012. Last month, Southampton officials entered the agreement, bringing closure to an event that started with violations of the Constitutional freedoms of this small group of mostly Senior Citizens, as alleged in the lawsuit filed in the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York, Case Number CV 12 6085. On July 26, 2011, the first date on which Southampton Town could legally solemnize same sex marriages under the New York Legislature’s recent Act, this handful of local citizens gathered at the Southampton Town Hall on this unique date in New York history to stand for traditional marriage.
“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 of 40 plus years,” 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.”
As stated in the court documents, these six individuals are common citizens, most between the ages of 53 to 76 and not part of one large, formal organization. Two are military veterans, one is a Bible College student in his 30s, and all are active in their local churches.
The Complaint filed in federal court alleges multiple rights violations by Town officials, including violations of each individual’s rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection under the law, and the right to due process. As documented in the plaintiffs’ sworn affidavits attached to the Complaint, the six had gathered on the sidewalk near the front steps of the Town Hall, whereupon they were immediately forced under threat of arrest by the Town’s police to move clear of the Town’s posted “bias free zone” and to relocate to the Town’s imposed “free speech zone,” an area flanked by seven-foot tall bushes.
The Plaintiffs claim that this forced relocation kept them from legally, conversationally interacting with others on the Town Hall steps, a location which their attorney describes as “the quintessential ‘traditional public forum’ commanding the highest protections of free speech under well-settled First Amendment law.” The Complaint also alleges that the Town discriminated, having a documented history of previously allowing much larger groups without religious affiliations to completely occupy and even block those same steps while exercising their free speech rights.
The irony of the experience was not lost on these citizens. The Village's own website (http://southamptonvillage.org/history.asp) tells the history of women and men of faith who founded Southampton. The Village historically began with a small group of English Puritans who fled from religious persecution in England and who in 1640 landed in the Hamptons at what is now known as Conscience Point. It is the oldest English settlement in the State of New York.
When D.C.-based trial attorney Stephen Dunn met with the six Plaintiffs and heard their 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 first and foremost protects the free exercise of religion, even before freedom of speech and freedom of the press. The tragedy here 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.”