City settles lawsuit with Freedom from Religion Foundation
After nearly a year of deliberation, the city has settled a lawsuit with the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) which resulted in the change of policy that initially prohibited a resident from placing a nonreligious winter solstice display in a local park.
Local FFRF member Jerome “Jerry” Bloom, filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court, Connecticut, in March 2016, after the city refused to allow them to place a nonreligious winter solstice display in Constitution Park.
Yet, the city had allowed the American Legion to place a religious display featuring "heralding angels" there every December for at least four years. The FFRF sued over impermissible viewpoint discrimination.
The city claimed the FFRF's proposed display was "offensive to many," when proposed to be placed in Constitution Park.
The display read, "At this Season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds."
The joint settlement agreement indicates the city agrees not to allow private unattended displays in Constitution Park. The city agreed that anywhere it, "allows private parties to erect unattended displays ... it will allow plaintiffs to erect a display in that park, without regard to the content or viewpoint ... so long as plaintiffs' display complies with any neutral, written city policies regarding such displays."
The joint settlement formally stipulates that the Huntington Green is a "public forum for private unattended displays," and also makes the changes to the city’s policy that were made late last year permanent, according to Attorney Ryan Jayne who also worked on this case.
Late last year, the city disallowed private displays in Constitution Park, including the American Legion's angel display. It also permitted the FFRF to place its winter solstice display in Huntington Park, where the city also permitted a Christian nativity display.
Days after FFRF's sign was put on display it was damaged and days following the first instance, destroyed.
The city agreed to pay FFRF its filing fees and other legal costs of $936.50.
"We are pleased the city of Shelton will no longer discriminate against atheists and other nonbelievers in its public forums, and that it has closed the forum at Constitution Park," said FFRF Co-President Dan Barker.
Barker indicated that the FFRF and Bloom will continue to put on a winter solstice display on the Huntington Green as long as religious displays are put up, and added, "We question that it's truly a public forum if dissenting points of view are vandalized. We'll be back in December, but will be asking for additional protection of our display."
The FFRF was represented by attorney Laurence J. Cohen, of Springfield, Mass., with FFRF Attorneys Elizabeth Cavell and Ryan Jayne, who is FFRF's Eric Stone Legal Fellow, serving as co-counsel.