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December 19, 2012

Bias In A Bias Free Zone?



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Southampton Town officials made a big show of declaring town hall a "Bias Free" zone a few years back. But for a group of local-churchgoers, it proved to be anything but. Now a suit has been filed by a group of churchgoers charging Southampton Town and Village, and their respective police departments of violating their personal rights.

Pastor Donald Havrilla and a small group of his parishioners from the Southampton Full Gospel Church oppose gay marriage, and wanted to demonstrate peacefully on the first day marriage licenses could be issued, July 26, 2011.

"We were meeting on the sidewalk," near town hall on Hampton Road, Pastor Havrilla recalled. "Our destination was the steps of town hall, which was perfectly logical. That's where the PBA (the local police union) held a rally, so we fully expected we could."

There have been numerous rallies held on the steps – in fact, the town's Anti-Bias Task Force members also there.

But in this case police intervened and refused to allow the seven would-be demonstrators on the steps or into town hall. "One detective said, 'you can't go there.' He said it was some kind of bias-free zone. Things deteriorated from there," Pastor Havrilla related.

Patrick Impelli, another plaintiff, said an unnamed village police officer "physically blocked" the front door of town hall and barred him from entering "under threat of arrest." Impelli had wanted to ask the town clerk for a phone number.

Stephen Dunn, a Washington DC based attorney who is representing the plaintiffs, scoffed at the notion of an anti-bias zone. "It's an absurd notion, it's self refuting. It's a farce. The town made it up," he said.

If anything, the designation could be construed to mean, "it's a free speech zone," Dunn opined, meaning his clients should have been able to speak their peace. Instead they were hustled away by police. "It's outrageous," Dunn said.

Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst said the bias free zone was, "initiated by the town's anti-bias task force. It is there to remind people we value and espouse non-bias for anyone who conducts business in town hall." Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said the anti-bias designation is "more a symbolic gesture."

Throne-Holst said she understands the plaintiffs felt they were victims of bias by the police. "I can't comment because of the litigation, but we will address this as necessary," Throne-Holst said.

The double standard in place is paramount to the suit, Dunn said. When the PBA members crowded the steps a much more volatile situation potentially existed, yet they were free to do as they wished.

According to court papers Pastor Havrilla was "threatened with unconstitutional arrest for publicly expressing his religious beliefs." At one point a town officer identified in court papers as Detective Mazzeo, "demanded the group relocate to . . . the 'free speech zone' further away from the building flanked by tall, thick bushes." The court filing has pictures of the so-called 'free speech' zone, which isn't marked as such or designated in any way. "There's nothing unusual about it," Throne Holst countered. "Our job is protect people who do business in town hall."

The members of the church have been subject to a double standard many times because of their religious beliefs, the plaintiffs said. At one "town hall" meeting hosted by Congressman Tim Bishop at the Southampton Library several years ago, the church members weren't allowed in, though throngs of people attended. A Bishop spokesman said at the time they were "upisland agitators" even though the church is down the block from the library.

"Almost all my clients are senior citizens -- they are mostly grandparents. They are concerned about the erosion of the American way of life and wanted to protest peacefully," Dunn said. In no way was he implying the PBA did anything untoward, he added. "We fully support them and we respect their desire to stand publicly. It makes it more egregious my clients weren't allowed to."

The plaintiffs are not seeking monetary damages. They want to affirm their freedom "to exercise constitutional rights" as well as injuncting the town and village from, "Violating plaintiff's rights to free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection, and Due Process . . . " according to court papers.

A spokeswoman for Southampton Town said it has hired the Smithtown-based law firm of Devitt, Spellman, Barrett LLP to handle the case.

The lawsuit targets both the town and village because Pastor Havrilla contends both had police officers on the scene on the day in question. For Southampton Town, it is yet another bothersome lawsuit. Two convicted drug dealers are suing the town, charging the police department's street crimes unit, in essence, set them up. The Suffolk County District Attorney is investigating the unit, which has been disbanded.

The papers were filed in U.S. Eastern District Court on December 11. It names the town, the village, Throne-Holst, Southampton Village Mayor Mark Epley, and the police chiefs from both the village and the town.

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