R.I. holiday display didn’t violate church-state separation

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

PROVIDENCE, R.I. — The holiday decorations display at Cranston City Hall that included more than a dozen plastic pink flamingos in Santa hats didn't break laws governing the separation of church and state, but the mayor's regulation of what was put in last winter's exhibit did violate free-speech provisions, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge William Smith said he couldn't find any religious purpose in Mayor Stephen Laffey's decorating efforts, but did find that his policy of reviewing items for their appropriateness acted to restrain free speech, and therefore violated the First Amendment.

Last winter, Laffey encouraged residents to put seasonal displays he deemed appropriate on City Hall's front lawn. First a menorah went up, then an inflatable snowman and Santa Claus, and after that a Nativity scene appeared. Then, a flock of plastic flamingos showed up, sponsored by a Cranston-resident who said the birds represented the “Church of the Pink Flamingo,” a church he made up as a tongue-in-cheek protest against the holiday display.

The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued on behalf of a Cranston resident, arguing that the city was trying to convey a religious message by displaying religious items at the seat of government, and was violating provisions of the First Amendment separating church and state.

Smith disagreed.

“Nothing in these public statements or in the actual implementation of the policy reveals or even remotely supports and inference that a religious purpose was behind the creation of the limited public forum,” the judge wrote.

The ACLU also argued that Laffey's oversight of the display amounted to a restriction on free speech.

Smith said that by granting the mayor the discretion to approve or deny displays on the basis of what he deemed appropriate, “the policy did not sufficiently protect the free speech rights of Cranston's citizens.”

Despite the split decision, Laffey claimed victory and said he would now rewrite the city's policy based on the judge's ruling, and hopes to erect a new, city-run display outside City Hall this holiday season.

“It was certainly no great victory for the ACLU,” Laffey said. “The ACLU would do far better to take on some serious discrimination cases.”

But Steven Brown, the Rhode Island ACLU's executive director, said the organization had accomplished its goals.

“The judge has essentially recognized that what happened last year was inappropriate,” Brown said. The ACLU didn't seek damages when it filed the suit.

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