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

  • Feb, 14, 2019: Religious & Secular Leaders Applaud AG Neronha’s Withdrawal from Controversial SCOTUS Brief
  • 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

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

Disclosure of Campaign Contributions (H 6255, S 1004) Passed House, Died in Senate
Category: 2019    First Amendment Rights    

A campaign finance bill introduced only in the last week of the session raised important First Amendment concerns, prompting the ACLU’s opposition. Presently, all campaign contributions over $100 to political action committees or candidates must be publicly disclosed. This legislation would have reduced the threshold to $25. Years ago, the ACLU successfully challenged a $0 disclosure requirement on behalf of an anonymous Jane Doe who wanted to make a small donation to a pro-choice PAC but was afraid that she would face retribution from her Catholic church. This led to the legislature’s adoption of a $100 contribution disclosure threshold which struck the correct balance between individual privacy, First Amendment rights, and campaign finance transparency. Although this bill swiftly passed out of the Senate on the second-to-last day of the session, it never received a vote in the House and died.

Book Sales Tax (H 5158) Died in Committee
Category: 2019    First Amendment Rights    

H 5158, introduced by Rep. Arthur Corvese, would have clarified the current tax exemption that exists for the sales of books by their authors to apply to works of non-fiction as well as fiction. Currently, the Division of Taxation and the Council for the Arts, the agencies responsible for implementing this law, distinguish between the two, interpreting the exemption for “an original and creative work” to only apply to works of fiction. In addition to raising serious First Amendment issues through this distinction, the agencies provide no guidance for what constitutes a work of fiction or a work of non-fiction; how, for example, would a non-fiction, graphic autobiography such as Persepolis be viewed? We testified in support of this important bill, but it died in committee. 

Net Neutrality (S 40) Passed Senate, Died in House
Category: 2019    First Amendment Rights    

“Net neutrality” guarantees that access to the internet remains non-discriminatory and that internet service providers can’t choose what sites you have access to or how quickly you can access them; the same principle underlies the regulation of phone companies, ensuring that your connection to Pizza Hut isn’t faster to the pizza place down the street simply because Pizza Hut pays for faster connection times. We testified in favor of this critical legislation, introduced by Senator Louis DiPalma, noting that open and equal access is a cornerstone to the ubiquitously used and indispensable medium of the internet. This bill passed the Senate but died in the House. 

Anti-Panhandling (H 5042) Died in Committee
Category: 2019    First Amendment Rights    

Rather than confronting the issues that cause individuals to engage in panhandling, H 5330 sought to ban the practice instead. The bill would have fined a motorist for passing anything out of their window to another individual while in an “active lane of travel.” While H 5330 would have penalized the motorist rather than the panhandler, the right for individuals to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations would have been violated regardless of which side is punished. The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which ultimately died in committee. 

FY 2020 Budget (H 5151 Article 5, Section 9) Died
Category: 2019    First Amendment Rights    

Article 5, Section 9 of the first version of the proposed FY 2020 budget included, amongst other potential taxes on "services," a proposed 7% sales tax on "lobbying services." We argued in both Senate Finance and House Finance Committees that this tax amounted to a direct  levy on the exercise of political speech, a quintessential First Amendment activity. We further noted that by solely applying this tax to lobbying, and not any peripheral services related to it, such as public relations or political consulting, the core exercise of the First Amendment right to petition government for the redress of grievances was particularly being singled out for adverse treatment. The proposal also allowed the "dues" of organizations engaged in lobbying services to be taxed. Our testimony noted that this budget provision could have a significant fiscal impact on many non-profit organizations that engage in lobbying, including the ACLU itself. This provision was ultimately not included in the revised budget proposal.