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

Autopsies (H 5473) DIED
Category: 2017    First Amendment Rights    

During March, the ACLU testified on this bill (H 5473) which amends current  state law designed to protect the religious freedom of Rhode Islanders by restricting autopsies when it would contravene the decedent’s religious beliefs. Specifically, the bill would remove the option for a “friend” of the deceased to object to an autopsy, and instead require that the objection come only from a family member or legal guardian. The ACLU testified that removing the “friend” authorization in those instances when a family member or guardian is not available is problematic. It serves as an important safeguard for those instances when no family member is available to provide information about a decedent’s religious beliefs. In order to preserve the important goal of religious freedom represented by this law, the ACLU urged that the language regarding a friend’s ability, in the absence of a family member, to object to an autopsy remain. No action was taken on this legislation before the June recess.

Panhandling (H 5210 and H-5258) DIED
Category: 2017    First Amendment Rights    

The ACLU testified on two bills regarding panhandling this year. H-5210 would make it illegal for a driver or passenger in a motor vehicle to “stop on any public highway to give any person any item.” H-5258 bans loitering on a public highway under certain circumstances. Both pieces of legislation are clearly aimed at panhandling, although they would also have a much broader impact on the exercise of First Amendment rights generally.

The ACLU has continuously criticized municipalities that have proposed or tried to pass ordinances aimed at criminalizing panhandling. All communities except for one have backed down from passing such ordinances after objections from the ACLU and homeless rights advocactes. The exception is the City of Cranston, which in January passed an ordinance that would ban a person from entering or standing in a roadway or median for the purpose of distributing anything to, or receiving anything from, the occupant of a motor vehicle. The ACLU has challenged that ordinance, and expects to do the same if either of these two bills passes. Neither of these bills moved out of committee prior to the end of the Legislative Session.