Religious Freedom Issues The ACLU of Rhode Island is Involved With - Court Cases, Legislation, News Releases


Protecting Civil Liberties in Rhode Island for Over 50 Years


Religious Freedom

Over the years, the ACLU of Rhode Island has been in the forefront of protecting the separation of church and state in the land of Roger Williams. At the same time that the Affiliate has worked diligently to prevent government aid to religion, it has been just as assiduous in protecting the free exercise of religion from government interference.  Through litigation, public education, and advocacy, the ACLU works to make sure that the government does not favor religion over non-religion, favor one religion over another, or curtail an individual’s right to freely and openly practice his or her religion.

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." – United States Constitution

Religious Freedom in the News

  • Jun, 13, 2017: ACLU of RI Statement on ICE Agent Arrest of Immigrant at Providence Courthouse
  • Dec, 16, 2012: ACLU Lawsuit Challenging Pawtucket’s Favorable Treatment of Parochial Schools Goes to Trial
  • May, 04, 2012: Court Upholds Pawtucket’s Allocation of School Fields Against Constitutional Challenge

View All Religious Freedom Related News Releases »

Religious Freedom Related Court Cases

2010: Watchtower Bible and Tract Society v. Segardia de Jesus
Category: Free Speech    Religious Freedom    

The Affiliate joined in a “friend of the court” brief, filed with the National ACLU and other New England affiliates, in support of a challenge by Jehovah’s Witnesses to a Puerto Rico law that gave certain neighborhoods the right to close themselves off from political and religious canvassers.

2010: Ahlquist v. City of Cranston
Category: Church and State    

A federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of a prayer mural addressed to “Our Heavenly Father” that was displayed in the auditorium of a Cranston public high school. The lawsuit, filed by RI ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and Thomas Bender, was on behalf of Jessica Ahlquist, a sophomore at Cranston High School West, who in the past year had spoken out against her school’s prayer display.

Cooperating Attorneys: Lynette Labinger and Thomas Bender

Supporting Documents

Religious Freedom Related Legislation

Terrorist Organizations (S 2696) DIED
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

Protecting the freedom of speech we hate is the benchmark of the First Amendment. In April, the ACLU testified before the Senate Judiciary committee in opposition to a resolution encouraging "law enforcement officials to recognize white nationalist and neo-nazi groups as terrorist organizations." While these groups may indeed promote odious views, the First Amendment nevertheless protects their right to speak. The ACLU noted that the history of law enforcement agencies investigating groups for not adhering to the nation's "foundational principles" or for reigniting "social animosities" includes the infiltration of the Communist party movement and anti-war and civil rights movements, and the spying in the recent past on some Muslim organizations, and urged amendment of the resolution. The resolution was never voted on by the committee.

Panhandling Ban (H 8128) DIED
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

Rhode Island continues to try to "fix" panhandling by imposing unconstitutional restrictions on the First Amendment rights of people who often have no other alternative. House bill 8128 would have made it illegal for a driver or passenger to pass anything from inside a vehicle to any individual outside the vehicle while in an "active lane of travel."  Rather than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead aimed to punish them for their poverty. 

In May, the ACLU testified in opposition to this bill before the House Judiciary committee. In June, the bill suffered a rare defeat in committee when it was opposed by ten of the fifteen committee members.

Tax Credits for Scholarship Organizations (H 7055) DIED
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

House bill 7055 would have greatly expanded a tax credit for businesses that make donations to "scholarship organizations" that funnel money to private and parochial schools for tuition purposes. At a time when public schools' budgets across the state continue to face hardships, it is simply unacceptable to be expanding the aid the state provides to private schools, even if it is done indirectly through a tax credit. While supporters have argued that low- and middle-income parents need alternatives to poorly performing public schools, diverting tax dollars to private schools is not the solution. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which was not acted upon by the committee.

Book Tax (H 7343) DIED
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

House bill 7343, sponsored by Rep. Arthur Corvese, clarified that an existing statute that exempts "a book or writing" from sales tax when sold by the author covers both fiction and nonfiction writings. However, the Division of Taxation - the body responsible for implementing the law - determined that only works of fiction qualify for this exemption. Such content discrimination is not only contrary to the existing statute, but also raises serious First Amendment problems. The ACLU of Rhode Island testified in support of this clarifying legislation, but the House Finance committee failed to move on it before the end of the year.

“Revenge Porn” (H 7452A, S 2581A) PASSED
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

This misnomered legislation (H 7452A, S 2581A) from the Attorney General makes it a crime to electronically transmit nude or sexually explicit images without the person’s consent, regardless of the sender’s intent. The Media Coalition, the RI Press Association, and the ACLU opposed the bill, as they had in past years, since it could criminalize publishing, among other newsworthy items, some of the photos from Abu Ghraib. The ACLU testified about these First Amendment concerns, but the General Assembly approved the legislation in May. In 2016, Governor Raimondo vetoed similar legislation on constitutional grounds, but supported this bill after some minor revisions that failed to address the ACLU's concerns.This year, the ACLU and other groups again asked Governor Raimondo for a veto. Unfortunately, she signed the bill into law in June.

Internet “Porn Tax” (S 2584) Withdawn
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

This much talked-about bill (S 2584) aimed to “require Internet service providers to provide digital blocking of sexual content and patently offensive material . . . and allow consumers to deactivate digital block upon payment of a twenty dollar ($20.00) fee.”  In a commentary we prepared on the bill, the ACLU noted that the legislation was clearly unconstitutional. Its requirements that ISPs censor a wide variety of protected speech and that consumers pay a fee in order to  access First Amendment-protected material ran afoul of numerous court decisions that protect free speech on the Internet and bar content-based taxes on speech. Reports that the ACLU of Rhode Island has issued over the years -- which you can find here, here and here -- have documented just how poorly Internet filtering devices work, all to the detriment of the public, to academic freedom, and to the promotion of access to knowledge that the Internet is designed to facilitate. Read more on our blog. This legislation was withdrawn at the sponsor's request. 

Net Neutrality (H 7422, S 2008A) Passed Senate; Died in House
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

Sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, this legislation (S 2008A, H 7422) would have prohibited state-purchased or funded Internet service providers (ISPs) from halting, slowing, or otherwise tampering with the transfer of data, thus ensuring fair and equal access to all Internet content. Such a proposal has become critical because last year the FCC repealed federal provisions requiring ISPs to abide by “these net neutrality” principles. The legislation was similar to an executive order issued by Governor Gina Raimondo in April, but approval of legislation by the General Assembly would ensure that Rhode Islanders will continue to have open Internet access regardless of who is Governor down the line. The ACLU testified in support of this legislation. The Senate approved an amended version of the legislation in June, but the bill died in the House.