A group that protested against gay marriage outside of Southampton Town Hall in July 2011, after the state’s legalization of same-sex weddings took effect, has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against Southampton Town and Southampton Village, and their police departments, for making them move away from Southampton Town Hall with their protest.
The Reverend Donald Havrilla of the Southampton Full Gospel Church, Marie Antoinette Favilla, James Boyd IV, Joseph Collins, Richard Morabito and Patrick Impelli, who were protesting that day, claim that the village and town violated their rights to freedom of speech, free exercise of religion, equal access, equal protection and the right to due process of law, all guaranteed by the First and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
The suit stems from the way the group says it was treated that day in front of Town Hall by town and village police, and later by town officials.
The group is not seeking any monetary damages in the suit, except that the town and village pay their attorney fees. What they are asking for in the suit is that the town clarify its code regarding who can protest in front of Town Hall, and when.
Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato did not return calls seeking comment on the suit.
The pastor and the five others protested the morning of July 26, 2011, before the town’s first same-sex wedding, maintaining that the Bible refers to homosexuality as sodomy and an abomination, and rallied for traditional marriage between a man and a woman. The suit said the group was discriminated against because of their religious message and was forced to move to a less visible area, the “free speech zone”—an area across from the driveway and the building’s front steps that officials have designated for protests and demonstrations—and faced the “threat of arrest” if they did not adhere to police officers’ requests.
“The town left open no ample, reasonable alternatives for plaintiffs to communicate their message to the intended audience,” the suit said.
The group first gathered on a section of sidewalk directly in front of the Town Hall building, and within three minutes a Southampton Town police officer “demanded” that the group move off the sidewalk and move to the free speech zone, the suit said.
The group argues in the suit that in recent years, the Town Policemen’s Benevolent Association and the Southampton Town Anti-Bias Task Force have held rallies on the front steps of Town Hall and asks that the group be treated “fairly and equally.”
A few protesters went inside the building to ask questions, but were told by police officers that they were prohibited from staying inside and must return to the free speech zone. Mr. Impelli did go back to the front door to ask for a non-emergency number for the police department, but was told by a Southampton Village police officer he was not allowed to enter the building “under threat of arrest,” according to the suit.
“The ability of citizens to stand on their own taxpayer property and express their opinions, whether for homosexual marriage or against it, each one has equal rights to express opinions, not with the threat of arrest or bullying,” Mr. Boyd said on Tuesday. “It’s our God-given right of freedom to assemble peacefully.”
In the days that followed, Rev. Havrilla contacted town officials as to why they had been relegated to the free speech zone. According to the suit, Assistant Town Attorney Elizabeth Vail wrote that in the future the group “may not congregate on or near any steps at Town Hall,” citing a town ordinance which prohibits any individual from peddling or soliciting in any congested place or area where the activity may impede, endanger or inconvenience the public or add to the congestion to the area.
Rev. Havrilla said this week that the ordinance was vague and unconstitutional.
“It’s not just their action that day,” he said. “The ordinance is vague and it looks like to us a situation where it could be interpreted differently on different days and in different ways, which just adds to the confusion. The ordinance should be abandoned or changed. It’s unconstitutional and a potential threat to anybody.”
On July 25, 2012, the group returned to the Town Hall’s front steps to protest once again for the one-year anniversary of the first gay marriage, but returned with three video cameras. The suit said no one in the group was “arrested or threatened with arrest” during their appearance.
“It didn’t have to get to this point, any sensible person can see how vague this is,” Rev. Havrilla said about the ordinance that stopped them from standing on the steps. “It could be the start of encroachment upon our freedoms, plus a lot is being said about religious freedom.”