Southampton Town is getting rid of its "Bias Free Zone" at Town Hall because the area actually caused more harm than good, according to those who successfully sued the town after trying to protest Marriage Equality Act in 2011.
"It's just an example of small government encroaching on the constitutional rights of citizens," said James Boyd, an East Hampton resident and deacon in the Southampton Full Gospel Church who was among the protestors on the first day same sex couples could wed.
In a settlement reached recently, the town agreed to rescind "Bias Free Zone" legislation, remove the signs referring to it, and pay the group's legal fees, totaling about $40,000.
Boyd said he and six others were told they couldn't protest on the steps of town hall on July 26, 2011, because it was a designated "Bias Free Zone" and they were moved to the sidewalk, about 30 feet from the steps.
"We were threatened with arrest. We were told to leave the Town Hall and we were refused entry. This is here amongst your neighbors in Southampton," said the Rev. Donald Havrilla.
Their intent was to hold a peaceful demonstration, just as they did one year later on the anniversary of the day same-sex couples could legally obtain a marriage license in New York State.
Police officers, from both the town and village — Town Hall is located in Southampton Village — kept a close eye on the group as they conducted a peaceful protest, including prayers and songs. Boyd said the group was made mostly of people in their 70s.
"I was the second youngest and I'm 53," Boyd said. "I can't point to anyone of them who may have been violent," he said.
In the days, weeks, and months following the incident, Boyd and Havrilla tried to get answers from town officials as to the purpose of the "Bias Free Zone." Boyd said he felt town officials were "stonewalling."
Feeling they had not been answered, Boyd said the group decided to move forward with a lawsuit, which was filed in late 2012, when they found an attorney, Steven Dunn, a friend to the church, who was willing to take their case pro bono.
In a statement this week, Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said the "Bias Free Zone" was created in 2008 "to promote civility and respect, and to erase racism in our community." It was set up in a similar way to the “Drug Free Zone” sign campaign at schools, she said. The town board passed a resolution to put up signs at town-owned facilities.
Fleming said the town board has since rescinded the resolution.
“The intent of the original signs was never to impede upon anyone’s first amendment rights, but rather to promote civility, and so we have agreed to remove the bias free zone signs," Fleming said.
"We attempted in the beginning to bring this to their attention," Havrilla said, adding that they realize some things have unintended consequences. "We're not suggesting their intent initially wasn't to have anyone harmed by this."
Asked about the importance of the decision, Havrilla said, "We hope that local officials will see that they have to be a little more careful when they are legislating laws like this," he said. "People have to realize that their rights are being eroded. We're hoping that will awaken people. Our rights have to be defended."
Both Havrilla and Boyd said this is not just their victory. "This is for everybody. History shows us they take my rights today and your rights will be gone too. This is a first amendment freedom for everybody," Havrilla said.
The town board is planning to erect new signs at town facilities "to assure the residents and visitors of our continued commitment to treat all people with dignity, respect and in an unbiased manner when interacting with town officials,” Fleming said.
“The Town Board did a good thing by allowing the signs to be refurbished and reworded," Gerald Martin, the Anti-Bias Task Force chairman, said in the statement. "These signs are not meant to limit freedom of speech. They are a reminder to people in all walks of life that they will be treated fairly by the Town, without bias and discrimination.”
New signs will go up soon, and the language is being reviewed by town officials.
"Certainly they have the right to generate another law," Havrilla said, but he felt it was "not smart legislation" if the wording hasn't been decided yet.