Rhode Island Supreme Court Rules Catholic Firefighters' Rights Were Not Violated When Forced to Drive Fire Truck in Gay Pride Parade Despite Religious Objections

New York City gay pride parade crowd in this undated photo. | (Photo: REUTERS/Joshua Lott)

The Supreme Court of Rhode Island has unanimously ruled that that the constitutional rights of two Catholic Providence firefighters were not violated when they were forced to drive a fire truck in a gay pride parade despite their religious objections to the homosexual lifestyle.

Prior to the 2001 Providence gay pride parade, Roman Catholic firefighters Theodore Fabrizio and Stephen Deninno were assigned by the city to drive a fire truck in the parade. Although the two men asked city officials to to be reassigned in light of their religious objection to homosexuality, their request for reassignment was denied.

After 10 years of litigation, the five-judge court voted to throw out the case. Justice William Robinson, who wrote on behalf of all five judges, stated that despite the firefighters' religious objections, their role of driving the fire truck during a ceremonial gay pride parade was deemed a "legitimate" fire department "work assignment." He additionally wrote that their constitutional rights were not violated because their role was "relatively anonymous."

"The respondents' appearance in the parade, solely as members of the Providence Fire Department, did not constitute a form of expression on their part," Robinson wrote. "Rather, it was simply the accomplishing of a task assigned to an engine of the Providence Fire Department."

After being required to drive in the gay parade, the two firefighters filed a lawsuit against the city's then-Mayor Buddy Cianci and Fire Chief James Rattigan in 2004. The two firefighters claimed that their freedom of speech and freedom of religion had been violated when they were forced to participate in such an event that went against their religious morals.

Throughout the legal process, Cianci, who was forced to resign from office twice due to felony convictions, maintained that driving a fire truck in the gay parade was no different from the number of other parades that the Providence Fire Department is asked to provide a fire truck for.

"Our policy was to send a fire truck to any parade that made the request, if one was available and the truck's participation did not compromise public safety," Cianci said. "Why should the gay-pride parade be any different than the St. Patrick's Day Parade, the Purim Parade, or any parade in Providence? It shouldn't, and it wasn't."

The court agreed with Cianci's notion that since driving in parades is a legitimate work task for the fire department, the two men cannot claim religious objection when they're expected to complete such a task.

Robinson wrote that no other court case or case law has ever supported the firefighters' claim that "employees' rights are violated if they happen to possess religious objection to the beliefs of the group with which an otherwise legitimate work assignment requires brief interaction."

"Respondents received an order to participate in the parade because their engine company was assigned to the task; it is uncontested that such orders were common," Robinson wrote. "After receiving this work assignment from their employer (the regularity of which has not been questioned), respondents participated in the parade merely as relatively anonymous public servants."

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