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Southampton, in same-sex protest settlement, repeals anti-bias law

Southampton Town Hall is shown.

Southampton Town Hall is shown. Photo Credit: Erin Geismar

Southampton has agreed to tear down its "bias-free zone" signs and pay $40,000 in legal fees to the attorney for a church group forced off town hall steps during protests of same-sex marriages in 2011 and 2012.

The town also repealed the anti-bias law erecting the signs as part of a settlement agreement with members of Southampton Full Gospel Church, who in December sued the town in federal court.

"I'm happy with the settlement," James Boyd, a deacon at the church and East Hampton resident, said Monday. "I think it took too long to get. I don't think we had to have a lawsuit."

Southampton in 2007 erected the signs around town declaring areas a "bias-free zone."

"This marker represents the community's recognition of the importance of establishing an open-minded and respectful attitude among all the residents of Southampton Town," the signs read.

On the first day the state allowed same-sex marriages, on July 26, 2011, seven members of the church tried to protest the new law on the steps of town hall. They were ordered by Southampton police to move to an area away from the front of the building, near a flagpole. Police said that they were in a bias-free zone, Boyd said.

They were again ordered to move in 2012, during a protest on the first anniversary of the law.

The settlement agreement, provided by the town, requires the town to remove the signs within 30 days of the agreement.

Councilwoman Bridget Fleming said Tuesday the town's Anti-Bias Task Force is drafting new language for the signs.

"It was never our intention to infringe on First Amendment rights," she said.

The church group, which also holds weekly protests of abortion in Southampton, had sued the town and Southampton Village, which polices the area of town hall, in federal court in December.

Boyd said the law was "so unfair and unbalanced," the group felt it had to sue. "This was bigger than us. Who else were they going to stop?"

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