ACLU of Rhode Island Files Discrimination Lawsuit On Behalf of Female Firefighter Applicant

August 27, 2003 12:00 am

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ACLU of Rhode Island
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PROVIDENCE, RI — The American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island today filed a federal lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of an unprecedented state law passed that allowed a town to bar a Latino woman from obtaining any position with the newly created North Smithfield Fire Department.

The law, passed last month, gave the Town of North Smithfield a one-time exemption from the state’s major law banning employment discrimination and allowed it to hire 21 white males who currently work for the town’s private fire and rescue service.

The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of 26-year-old Christine Melendez, who is certified as an EMT-Cardiac and currently works for a private ambulance service in that capacity. She is also a volunteer with the Scituate Ambulance Corps. The ACLU argued in legal papers that the town’s action violated federal anti-discrimination laws as well as Melendez’ right to equal protection of the laws. The town also violated the state constitution by failing to have residents vote on the measure.

“During the course of overcoming a childhood illness, I developed a great respect and admiration for the people that treated me. Since that time, my goal has been to give back to others what was given to me,” Melendez said. “I would love to work for the new fire department in North Smithfield. I believe that what the Town Council and the state have done is wrong. I should not be denied the ability to compete equally with white men for the opportunity to serve the public.”

Last week, the town, which has no fire department of its own, took formal action to acquire the private fire and rescue service that has been serving North Smithfield. In doing so, town officials voted to hire en masse the service’s all-white and all-male firefighting force. Before taking this action, the town sought and obtained an exemption from the state’s Fair Employment Practices Act (FEPA), which prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of race, gender and age. The exemption, granted by the General Assembly, bars any individual from filing an employment discrimination claim under FEPA for the town’s mass hiring. However, the law did not – and legally could not – exempt the town from federal anti-discrimination statutes, the ACLU said.

The legal complaint, filed by ACLU volunteer attorneys Lynette Labinger and John Dineen, seeks a restraining order to prevent the acquisition of the private rescue service from moving forward on August 31st. If that effort is unsuccessful, the lawsuit will proceed.

The ACLU had lobbied vigorously against passage of the state law granting immunity to the town for violating the state’s anti-discrimination law. Governor Carcieri refused to veto the bill, despite the request of 15 civil rights organizations. His failure to veto the bill was one of five issues for which he was criticized in a report recently released by many of those organizations.


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