BURRILLVILLE – A vote last year by the Town Council to pass a resolution declaring Burrillville a “Second Amendment Sanctuary,” caused ripples across the state, as gun control advocates decried the decision, while other Rhode Island town leaders took up similar legislation.
This week, the board addressed a different constitutional issue, declaring the town a “First Amendment Sanctuary,” in reaction to state executive measures aimed at curbing the spread of Covid-19.
The resolution, passed by a 5-2 vote at a virtual meeting on Wednesday, June 24, 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.”
Councilors Amanda Gingell and Dennis Anderson voted against the resolution, crafted by Councilor Donald Fox.
The resolution takes specific aim at restrictions on religious gatherings and the right to assemble, pointing to sections of the U.S. and Rhode Island Constitutions protecting such freedoms.
“Phases One and Two of the plan to reopen the Rhode Island economy include many cumbersome restrictions on places of worship, restaurants, retail establishments and other small businesses; with inconsistencies of enforcement afforded to legal, law abiding citizens versus illegal activities such as looting and arson,” it states.
In noting his support for the resolution, Councilor Raymond Trinque pointed to the restrictions on governmental board meetings, which have had to be held virtually since the region first began reaction to the pandemic in March.
“I think the public’s business is not being served properly,” said Trinque. “I don’t think we’re getting the feedback from the public, and I don’t feel they’re getting the opportunity to give that feedback.”
Councilor Stephen Rawson pointed to the economic affects of restrictions to curb the pandemic, also questioning if the threat from the virus fully justifies the state’s ongoing executive orders.
“Even though they’ve allowed restaurants to reopen, it’s still difficult for them to survive,” Rawson said. “I know this will make a statement to Providence.”
Councilor Dennis Anderson said that on a personal level, recent news regarding actions such as the destruction of historical monuments, and the extension of executive powers well beyond their constitutional purview have affected him deeply.
“I’ve tried to disassociate personal feelings about the hypocrisy and insanity that’s abounded in the past month,” Anderson said. “It comes down to: What is good for the citizens of Burrillville? I don’t think now is the time to launch a lightening rod issue by the Burrillville Town Council.”
Others disagreed, including Councilor Jeremy Bailey, one of only two Democrats on the seven-member board including Gingell.
“Never in the history of this country have we ever restricted the free movement and rights of healthy people,” Bailey said.
“I do think it’s important and I think the time is right,” Trinque said.
Rawson defended the rights of peaceful protestors inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, noting the majority have not taken part in the riots and destruction across the country.
“That whole movement has been hijacked by a group of individuals that just wants to cause trouble,” Rawson said, adding of the virus, “I don’t think this health scare rises to the occasion where the executive part of the government can tell us what to do and what not to do.”
“I know friends who are very fearful of this, and I respect that,” he added.
Fox, who also crafted the council’s Second Amendment Sanctuary resolution last April, took a less conciliatory approach.
“It is the purview of this council to make this decision and I believe we need to protect our residents,” Fox said. “Let Governor Raimondo militarize people in the state police and arrest people in our churches.”
“This is also a message to the General Assembly that they need to take up their role and not ceed their authority,” Fox said.
“We all know the governor is not allowed to make laws,” Trinque agreed.
Gingell said she has thought about the issue “immensely,” over the past two weeks.
“I totally respect the First Amendment,” she said. “I get it. I do believe in the social distancing, but there are some executive orders that I feel are over the top.”
Still, Gingell said she agreed with Anderson that it was not the right time for such action.
Anderson added, “I do believe the governor’s new love affair with her executive powers needs to be called out. This issue is bigger than the target that we put in this resolution.”
Asked his opinion, town Solicitor William Dmitri said “I think it’s a great resolution. It doesn’t say that we’re not going to follow lawful orders.”
Dmitri pointed to language in the resolution stating, “that the Burrillville Town Council affirms its support for the Burrillville Town Administration, including the Burrillville Police Department, in the exercise of its sound discretion to not enforce unconstitutional executive orders, related to the Wuhan-origin Coronavirus (Covid-19), now and in the future, against its citizens.”
“We’re not going to fund or force the Burrillville Police Department to enforce unconstitutional orders,” Dmitri said.
Councilors asked Town Manager Michael Wood to forward the resolution to other Rhode Island cities and towns, and state leadership for support.
The complete resolution can be found here.