Source: The Independent

Southampton Backs Off “Bias-Free” Stance

by Rick Murphy

February 06, 2013

Faced with a Civil Rights suit filed by a small group of local churchgoers, Southampton is rethinking its original position about the “Bias Free” status of town hall.

In 2011 seven individuals from the Southampton Full Gospel Church wanted to stage a peaceful demonstration on the steps of town hall. Their request was denied, and they were ordered to stand in an out of the way area near a hedgerow. Police refused to allow them to go into town hall.

Last week in U.S. District Court, however, the town apparently changed its tune.

“Judge [Joseph F.] Bianco showed himself to be a reasonable man,” said Stephen Dunn, a Washington Based attorney representing the plaintiffs. He said the town “agreed not to enforce its bias-free legislation” while the matter is pending in court and filed a letter in court stating as much. That paved the way for a peaceful demonstration held Friday on the steps of town hall.

The group wanted to protest on July 26, 2011, the first day same sex marriage licenses were being issued by the town. Officials took a hard line because they didn’t agree with the protesters, they charged.

“We were bullied into a corner,” recalled James Boyd, one of the protesters on that day and again last Friday. “The town clerk said we were rude for asking questions. This is how they treat people who disagree with them. There were police everywhere, inside and out.”

The church is noted for taking a conservative stance on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.

Last Friday, the town took a different tack. Police drove by but the handful of demonstrators was allowed to remain on the steps. Boyd said that was how they should have been treated in 2011. “We have a history of demonstrating peacefully. We’ve never caused any problems.” Boyd said most of his group were in their seventies. “I’m 51 and I was the second youngest.”

The suit is not asking damages from the town but for an apology and assurances the plaintiffs will be able in the future to protest in the same places others are allowed to gather. For example, the Police Benevolent Association union members and the town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, along with the NAACP, were allowed to protest on the steps of town hall before the group of churchgoers was denied permission.

Dunn charged the town “put a plan in place to prevent them from standing on the steps and sidewalk” in direct violation of the First Amendment. “It’s no accident religious freedom comes ahead of even freedom of the press. You are protected by the Constitution.”

David Arntsen, an attorney hired by the town to defend it against the lawsuit, could not be reached for comment.