Providence Gay Pride Parade Ruling Upholds Constitutionality of the Order to Participate

A ten-year legal battle over the assignment of an engine company to participate in an annual gay-pride parade in Providence, Rhode Island has come to a close with the Rhode Island Supreme Court ruling in favor of the fire department.

The case dates back to June, 2001 when Providence’s Engine 7 was assigned to participate in the “2001 Pride Parade” scheduled to be held in their response district on June 16, 2001. At the time, two of the firefighters, Captain Stephen Deninno and FF Jay Fabrizio “objected to participating in the parade on the basis of their religious beliefs, expressing their discomfort to the district chief. Notwithstanding the objections … [Fire Chief James] Rattigan reiterated his order that they carry out the task assigned.” According to the decision both men had been told the order originated with Mayor Vincent A. Cianci, Jr.

Captain Deninno and FF Fabrizio “further alleged that, while the parade was ongoing, they experienced sexual harassment, including being subjected to sexual propositions and other offensive remarks. Mr. Fabrizio and Mr. Deninno also claimed that the harassment did not end with the work assignment; they averred that, after their assignment to the parade, they suffered additional sexual harassment at the hands of their coworkers and also received at least sixty profanity-laced anonymous phone calls.”

In 2004 after exhausting their administrative remedies, both men filed suits against the Mayor, the Fire Chief and the City of Providence alleging nine counts:

  • employment discrimination in violation of the federal Civil Rights Act;
  • unlawful discrimination in violation of the state Fair Employment Practices Act;
  • unlawful discrimination in violation of the state Civil Rights Act;
  • deprivation of the right to freedom of religion under federal law;
  • deprivation of the right to freedom of speech and association under federal law;
  • deprivation of the right of freedom of religion in violation of the Rhode Island Constitution;
  • deprivation of the right of freedom of speech and association in violation of the Rhode Island Constitution;
  • intentional infliction of emotional distress; and
  • negligent infliction of emotional distress.

The cases were merged and dragged on in Superior Court for ten years as both sides fought over a variety of procedural and substantive issues before arriving at the Rhode Island Supreme Court earlier this year. While the issue before the RISC was whether or not Mayor Cianci and Chief Rattigan were entitled to “qualified immunity” for ordering the crew to participate in the parade, the court recognized a larger issue was also ripe: whether there was an underlying constitutional violation.

In the court’s own words:

  • [W]e conclude that, in view of the facts of this specific case, it is not necessary to invoke the doctrine of qualified immunity because no constitutional violation occurred.
  • Here, respondents received an order to participate in the parade because their engine company was assigned to the task; it is uncontested that such orders were common, as evidenced by Chief Rattigan’s reference to receiving “numerous” requests from parade organizers for Fire Department participation and as reflected in the standard form for such requests used by the Department.
  • After receiving this work assignment from their employer (the regularity of which has not been questioned), respondents participated in the parade merely as relatively anonymous public servants.
  • We are unaware of any pertinent legal authority in support of the proposition that, in such specific circumstances, employees’ rights are violated if they happen to possess religious objections to the beliefs of the group with which an otherwise legitimate work assignment requires brief interaction.
  • The court then made reference to Mendoza Toro v. Gil, 110 F. Supp. 2d 28, 35 (D.P.R. 2000) which stated “that the plaintiff’s beliefs “[did] not relieve her of her professional obligation to complete legitimate work assignments” and further stating that the plaintiff did not “have a First Amendment right to pick and choose work assignments that suit[ed] her moral beliefs”.
  • The respondents’ appearance in the parade, solely as members of the Providence Fire Department, did not constitute a form of expression on their part. Rather, it was simply the accomplishing of a task assigned to an engine company of the Providence Fire Department, and the individuals chosen to carry out that assignment cannot be said to have engaged in personal speech by carrying out their work as public servants.

Because the case involves question of US Constitutional law, it could go to the US Supreme Court. Whether the plaintiffs will choose to take that route, and whether SCOTUS will choose to hear the case remain open at this time.

Here is a copy of the ruling: Fabrizio et al v City of Providence

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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