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

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

House bill 8128 would make it illegal for a driver or passenger to pass anything from inside a vehicle to any individual outside the vehicle while in an "activel lane of travel." While the bill states that it is not the general assembly's intent to prohibit panhandling, it is unclear to us how that is possible when the bill would effectively prohibit panhandling as it currently exists. These are individuals struggling with homelessness or destitution and who seek to peacefully exercise their First Amendment right to solicit donations. Rather than addressing the problems that have forced people to engage in panhandling in the first place, this proposal instead seeks to punish them for their poverty. 

The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which remains in committee. 

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

House bill 7055 would greatly expand a tax credit for businesses that make donations to "scholarhip 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 alternative to poorly performing public schools, diverting tax dollars to private schools is not the solution to failing public schools.

The ACLU testified in opposition to this bill, which received a hearing and remains in committee.

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

House bill 7343 clarifies that an existing statute that exempts "a book or writing" from sales tax covers both fiction and nonfiction writings. While the statute is already explicit in stating this, the Division of Taxation, which is responsible for implementing the law, had determined that only works of fiction qualify for this exemption. Such content disctinction 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. 

“Revenge Porn” (H 2452, S 2581)
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

This misnomered legislation and it's companion in the House from the Attorney General would make 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 have opposed the bill in past years since it could criminalize publishing, among other newsworthy items, some of the photos from Abu Ghraib.

In 2016 Governor Raimondo vetoed the legislation on constitutional grounds, then supported the bill in 2017 after some minor revisions that failed to address the ACLU’s First Amendment concerns, It was reintroduced this session with the same concerning language. The ACLU once again has testified in opposition to this problematic legislation, which has passed the Senate and now awaits a hearing in  the House Judiciary committee.

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

This much talked-about bill (S-2584) would “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 have prepared on the bill, we note that the legislation is 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 run 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 has been withdrawn at the sponsor's request. 

Net Neutrality (S 2008, H 7422)
Category: 2018    First Amendment Rights    

It is nearly impossible to get through life without using the Internet, which is why it’s essential that our free speech rights be protected both on- and offline. Sponsored by Sen. Louis DiPalma and Rep. Aaron Regunberg, this legislation (S 2008, H 7422)would prohibit 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. Its enactment has become critical because last year the FCC repealed federal provisions requiring ISPs to abide by “net neutrality” principles that required Internet access to  be open and non-discriminatory in operation. After a hearing in the House, no further action has been taken on these bills.