The ACLU of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an unprecedented state law passed by the General Assembly last month that gave the Town of North Smithfield a one-time exemption from the state’s major law banning employment discrimination. The suit was filed on behalf of an Hispanic female applicant, Christine Melendez, who is barred from obtaining any position with the newly-created North Smithfield Fire Department because of the law. Instead, the town has voted to hire 21 white males who currently work for the town’s private fire and rescue service.
Last week, the Town, which has no fire department of its own, took formal action to acquire the private fire and rescue service that has been serving North Smithfield. In doing so, the Town voted to hire en masse the service’s all white and all male firefighting force. Before taking this action, the Town sought and obtained an exemption from the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), the state law prohibiting employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age. The exemption, granted by the General Assembly, bars any individual from filing an employment discrimination claim under FEPA for the Town’s mass hiring. However, the law did not – and legally could not – exempt the Town from federal anti-discrimination statutes.
The complaint, filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and John Dineen, will seek a restraining order to prevent the acquisition of the private rescue service from moving forward on August 31st. If that effort is unsuccessful, the suit will proceed. Melendez, age 26, is certified as an EMT-Cardiac and currently works for a private ambulance service in that capacity. She is also a volunteer with the Scituate Ambulance Corps. The lawsuit argues that the town’s action violated federal anti-discrimination laws. The suit further argues that the special state law violates Melendez’ right to equal protection of the laws. The suit also claims that the Town violated the state constitution by failing to have town residents vote on the measure.
The ACLU lobbied vigorously, but unsuccessfully, against passage of the state law granting immunity to the Town for violating the state’s anti-discrimination law. Governor Carcieri’s refusal to veto the bill, despite the request of 15 civil rights organizations, was one of five issues for which he was criticized in a report recently released by many of those organizations.
Ms. Melendez said today: “During the course of overcoming a childhood illness, I developed a great respect and admiration for the people that treated me. Since that time, my goal has been to give back to others what was given to me. I would love to work for the new fire department in North Smithfield. I believe that what the Town Council and the state have done is wrong. I should not be denied the ability to compete equally with white men for the opportunity to serve the public.”