Religious People Have the Right To Assemble Too

Someone needs to tell the facilities manager at the Rhode Island State House that the government can’t deny members of religious groups the right to assemble when the same right is extended to secular groups. From Elizabeth Gudrais in last Wednesday’s Projo

Marco Schiappa, associate director for facilities management with the Department of Administration, told the State Properties Committee yesterday morning that a state policy — apparently both longstanding and long ignored — prohibits use of the State House or its grounds for religious purposes.
“We’ve either got to change the procedures, or we’ve got to stick to the procedures,” he told the committee.
Schiappa said he discovered the policy after assuming his current job six months ago. Because policy has conflicted with practice for so long, Schiappa recommended that the committee approve the Sept. 1 day of prayer, but offered this warning: “We want to make it clear that this may not be something that will be allowed in the future”…By the end of the day, Schiappa said he had asked lawyers whether changing it to allow religious events would cause any legal problems in light of the constitutional prohibition on establishment of religion. If not, Schiappa said, he expected the policy would be changed, subject to approval by Department of Administration Director Beverly Najarian.
Mr. Schiappa should be equally as concerned with running afoul of the Constitutional provision (that he seems unaware of) preventing government from interfering with the free exercise of religion.
In reality, it is highly unlikely that anything will come of this. Limiting the right to assemble because a demonstration has been deemed “religious” by the government is so clearly unconstitutional, even the ACLU opposes it…
Steven Brown, executive director of the ACLU’s Rhode Island chapter, called the policy “unconstitutional to the nth degree” and said his group “would be prepared to sue in a minute” if the state began enforcing it.
Brown said the State House was explicitly opened to demonstrations with a religious theme after a 1974 lawsuit over the state’s rejection of a group’s request to hold a prayer service in the rotunda to condemn cuts to the state’s welfare program by Gov. Philip W. Noel.
“In light of that history,” Brown said, “to see a policy that explicitly prohibits what a federal court said was constitutionally required is pretty shocking.”
However, the response from the Diocese of Providence on this matter is very, very disappointing…
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Providence declined to take a strong stance against the policy. “The state has every right to regulate the use of their buildings and their grounds,” diocese spokesman Michael Guilfoyle said.
Render unto Caesar and all, but the Diocese is wrong to take the position that public expression based on faith is somehow not worthy of the same protections from government extended to public expression based on any other motivation.
Finally, Monday’s Political Scene column from the Projo listed a few other prohibitions regarding demostrations at the state house that are not currently being enforced…
Just this year, the nonprofit advocacy group Ocean State Action has broken just about every rule on the list.
For instance: “No music allowed in the State House during normal business hours, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.”
The group often begins or ends protests in the rotunda with a song. The group also assists Marriage Equality Rhode Island in sponsoring protests in favor of same-sex marriage, protests that usually include music.
Also: “Sleep-outs on the State House grounds are prohibited.”
Ocean State Action helped coordinate an overnight demonstration, including tents, to protest proposed budget cuts.
It is unclear why the religious group provision was the only provision that caught Mr. Schiappa’s eye.

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PDM
PDM
13 years ago

What? No free speech zones?

SusanD
SusanD
13 years ago

That’s the point. The courts ruled in 1974 that religious and any other groups are permitted to meet, hold rallies and make speeches there.
They’re claiming they don’t know who instituted this (illegal) policy. Nonsense. They’re shielding someone. Suspicion falls on Noel, who presumably was ticked that the courts ruled against him.
You’re right, Andrew. Mr. Schiappa is either a little too zealous or not zealous enough.

Suzanne
Suzanne
13 years ago

Mr. Schiappa should be equally as concerned with running afoul of the Constitutional provision (that he seems unaware of) preventing government from interfering with the free exercise of religion.
Andrew, not that I agree with this prohibition, but IMO this has nothing to do with the free exercise of religion, unless any particular faith decides that a public building is necessary to the exercise of that religion, in which case they are running afoul of the anti-establishment clause of the 1st Amendment.
Rather, it is the case that this is running afoul of the right to assembly clause of the 1st Amendment, which should apply equally to religious groups as it does to secular ones.

Andrew
13 years ago

Suzanne,
I think we agree on the outcome here. However, using the reasoning you suggest, the government could ban an individual from reading a bible in a public library, arguing that reading the bible in that particular location is not necessary for the exercise of a particular faith. That would clearly run afoul of the free-exercise clause.
Free exercise means free exercise, not free exercise except on public grounds.

Suzanne
Suzanne
13 years ago

Free exercise means free exercise, not free exercise except on public grounds.
Sorry, but I don’t think it is the same issue. The Bible is necessary to the exercise of Christianity. But, again, unless you are arguing that a public building is the same as a worshipping place, then it isn’t the same thing. Again, I am not sure why the objection isn’t towards the fact that they are infringing on a religious group’s right to assembly, which is a far stronger argument.

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