BURRILLVILLE – Members of the Burrillville Town Council on Wednesday defended their decision last month to declare the town a “First Amendment Sanctuary,” amid calls from residents to rescind the resolution.
The legislation, passed in a 5-2 vote, states that “the Burrillville Town Council will not appropriate funds for staffing, overtime, and/or expenses for work related to the execution of the unconstitutional executive orders related to the Wuhan-origin Coronavirus (Covid-19) that infringe upon the aforesaid Constitutional rights of the People of the Town of Burrillville to freedom of religion, assembly and redress of grievances.”
During a Zoom meeting held on Wednesday, July 22, several residents took issue with how the virus was identified.
“The only possible reason to put that on there is if there’s some other Covid-19 out there that I’m not aware of,” said resident Peggy Dudley.
“This council’s choice to use that term rather than the official name of the virus – Covid-19 – reflects so poorly on Burrillville,” said resident Betsy Alper. “As members of the Town Council, you have a soapbox that provides a greater ability to communicate to a wider audience than others. With that, you have a greater responsibility to ensure that your words and actions will cause no harm.”
Alper noted that the term has been the cause of acts of aggression against those of Asian descent.
“It’s something worse than racist – it’s a term that encourages acts of racism,” Alper said.
Those who voted in favor of the resolution said this week that they felt people had misinterpreted their intent. Councilors Amanda Gingell and Dennis Anderson cast the minority votes in dissent in June.
Councilor Donald Fox, who crafted the legislation, along with a previous resolution declaring Burrillville a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” noted that as the state reacted to the pandemic, the legislative and judicial branches of government closed, and “almost complete power to act,” was taken by the executive branch.
“Some of the actions violated not only our First Amendment, but our Fourth Amendment rights,” Fox said. “I hold the General Assembly guilty for its abdication of responsibility to meet for emergency measures during this crisis.”
Fox said the action was also a message to the state regarding budgets and unfunded mandates.
“We’re facing a great deal of hardship this year, and all that we know for certain is the governor is banking on federal handouts to balance the bloated state budget that’s been in bad shape for decades,” Fox said. “These unfunded mandates are always to the detriment of local taxpayers financially.”
“If people in this town want to gather to pray, protest or otherwise exercise their rights under the First Amendment, we will allow it,” Fox continued. “If the state wants to arrest people for assembly, they should pay for the enforcement and do the enforcing itself. There needs to be a balanced approach that provides for safety, but still allows individual choice under the constitution.”
Fox said that around one dozen people sent letters or messages in opposition to the June action, but that the majority of communications he received were in support.
“Many did not take the time to read the resolution,” he said of detractors.
But some residents said they felt the council was taking action on issues not within their purview.
“You are basically putting on the robes of Supreme Court justices,” said Bruce Powers, noting that the council’s stated goals and objectives include things like finances, recreational space and economic development. “This seems an appropriate array of issues that a town council would deal with in the state of Rhode Island. Unfortunately, constitutional issues is not among them.”
The authority, Powers said, rests with the federal courts.
“Our legal history contains a vast number of precedents where the government behaved similarly in seeking to stop a disease from killing us,” Powers said.
Dudley also questioned the council’s authority to pass resolutions on constitutional issues.
“I apparently missed the ruling where the Burrillville Town Council was afforded the power to declare something unconstitutional,” Dudley said. “I’m wondering is any of you ever took a civics or a U.S. government class. Are you not aware that constitutional rights are not absolute?”
Dudley pointed out that rights can be constrained or limited by duly enacted laws, noting that Gov. Gina Raimondo cited specific legislation when declaring a state of emergency in March, including the state’s emergency management law, passed in the 1950s. Dudley noted that the power to establish quarantine for the preservation of public health was established in 1896.
“Your premise that those executive orders are unconstitutional is false,” she said.
“Your resolution did nothing to bring people together,” Dudley added. “It just pushed them farther apart. The five of you that voted for this should be ashamed.”
Fox reacted to the question of the council’s purview by noting that the courts and General Assembly have stopped acting in recent months, when they still needed to function to protect people’s rights.
Councilor Stephen Rawson noted that he also felt on obligation to protect residents’ rights and freedoms.
“Rhode Island was founded on religious freedom,” Rawson said.
Council members repeatedly stated that the action was not meant to discourage residents from wearing masks.
“No one ever said ‘don’t wear masks.’ We all wear masks,” said Councilor Raymond Trinque. “I don’t want to see our response to this virus put aside by social media conversations.”
Councilor Jeremy Bailey, one of only two Democrats on the board and the only left-leaning councilor to approve the resolution said that one member of his political party told him he would have a target on his back if he didn’t rescind his vote.
“I’m receiving some criticism now but it doesn’t really phase me because I’m doing what I believe is right,” Bailey said. “I do support the governor, but I take issue with some of the things she has done.”
Bailey said he’s proud of the work Burrillville has done to help those in need during the pandemic including delivering groceries and more than 70 meals a day.
“This is a big job,” he said. “I couldn’t be any prouder.”
To those who took issue with identifying the virus as, “Wuhan-origin Coronavirus” Bailey added, “I don’t see how that’s an issue. I don’t have anything against people from Lyme, Connecticut. My whole family has been stricken with Lyme Disease.”
Trinque also pointed to the suspension of freedoms in defending his support.
“When we give up our civil rights for a tragedy, for a virus – or 9/11 is an example – there’s no guarantee that we’ll ever get them back,” he said.