Osediacz v. City of Cranston ex rel. Rossi

Decision Date15 November 2004
Docket NumberC.A. No. 03-600S.
Citation344 F.Supp.2d 799
PartiesGrace C. OSEDIACZ, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF CRANSTON, by and through its Treasurer, Randy ROSSI, Stephen P. Laffey, individually and in his official capacity as Mayor of the City of Cranston, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Rhode Island

Amato A. DeLuca, Esq., Miriam Weizenbaum, Esq., Michael T. Eskey, Esq., DeLuca & Weizenbaum, Ltd., Providence, RI, for Plaintiff.

Steven Frias, Esq., Zizik, Powers, O'Connell, Spaulding & Lamontagne, P.C., Providence, RI, Jametta O. Alston, Esq., Cranston, RI, Tom Marcelle, Esq., Delmar, NY, for Defendants.


SMITH, District Judge.

In the winter of 2003, the City of Cranston ("the City") opened the front lawn of Cranston City Hall ("City Hall") as a limited public forum for the display of holiday and seasonal decorations. The first displays to appear on the lawn included a menorah and a creche. Grace C. Osediacz, a citizen of Cranston and the plaintiff in this matter ("Plaintiff"), considered the placement of these displays on the City Hall lawn to be a demonstration of support of religion by the City and its Mayor. She brought this action against the City, Cranston Mayor Stephen P. Laffey ("the Mayor"), and Cranston Treasurer Randy Rossi (collectively, "Defendants"), alleging violations of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.1 Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment by allowing the display of religious items on the front lawn of City Hall. She also independently challenges the written policy ("the Policy"), pursuant to which the religious and other holiday items were allowed to be displayed, as violating the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment.2

Defendants have moved for summary judgment on both claims. For the reasons discussed below, summary judgment is granted for the Defendants as to the Establishment Clause count and denied as to the Free Speech Clause count. Furthermore, because the Free Speech Clause count presents a pure question of law, and because there are no material facts in dispute, the Court moves sua sponte to grant summary judgment on that count in favor of Plaintiff. See Berkovitz v. Home Box Office, Inc., 89 F.3d 24, 29 (1st Cir.1996) ("It is apodictic that district courts have the power to grant summary judgment sua sponte.").

I. Facts

The following facts are undisputed, except as noted.3 To the extent any facts are in dispute, they are set out in the light most favorable to Plaintiff for purposes of the Defendant's motion.

In December 2003, the City issued a written policy that read:

From the Desk of Mayor Steve Laffey

Policy regarding Holiday and Seasonal Decorations

1. Appropriate* holiday and seasonal decorations may be erected from December 5January 1st of each year.

2. Displays may be located only on the South facing lawn of City Hall (Park Avenue side).

3. Cranston City Hall lawn serves as a limited public forum open for the purpose of appropriate seasonal and holiday displays.

4. A prerequisite to placing displays is leaving a name, phone number, and address in case the City must contact the displayer, along with a brief written description of the appropriate holiday and seasonal decoration. A waiver must also be signed agreeing that the City of Cranston will not be held responsible for any damage that may occur to the erected holiday and seasonal display. This waiver must be signed before any display may be erected.

5. The City will not be liable for damage to a display or for injury to people placing or removing displays.

6. Because space is limited, if the lawn becomes too crowded prior to the end date for the displays, the City may limit duplicate displays or restrict further displays.

7. The Mayor or his designee must approve all holiday and seasonal decorations.

* Appropriate is defined as being suitable and proper for the holiday occasion. The display cannot shock the consciousness of the community.

(Pl.'s Compl. Ex. 1.) Also in December 2003, Mayor Laffey issued a press release inviting the public to display "appropriate holiday and seasonal displays" on the lawn at the entrance to City Hall. (Id. ¶ 13; Defs.' Reply Decl. ¶ 20.) Following the issuance of this public invitation, a number of citizens placed displays on the City Hall lawn. 4

In reviewing the entire display for the presence of an Establishment Clause violation, this Court looks to the scene as it was at the time of the filing of Plaintiff's Complaint. See ACLU v. Schundler, 168 F.3d 92 (3d Cir.1999) (including in Establishment Clause analysis a sign that was placed near a challenged holiday display after ACLU complained to city but before complaint was filed with court).

The front lawn of City Hall covers an area approximately ten car-lengths by three car-lengths. A large evergreen tree, apparently lighted each December, occupies the center of the lawn. The following displays had been placed by citizens either on the front lawn itself or by the entrance to City Hall at the time of the filing of the Complaint: a menorah approximately five feet in height, placed by Chabad of West Bay, a Jewish group, and accompanied by a sign that read: "Chabad wishes you a Happy Chanukah"; an inflatable snowman and Santa Claus approximately seven feet tall; an almost life-size nativity scene; a three-foot holographic angel; fifteen pink flamingos with Santa hats with a plaque that read in part: "Church of the Pink Flamingo"; two plastic snowmen; a four-foot by six-foot sign from the Teamsters Union that read: "Happy Holidays from the Teamsters Union"; and three Santa "snowmen doggies."

An 8-inch × 11-inch disclaimer was also posted on the entrances to City Hall and on bulletin boards inside the building. (See Defs.' Answer at 5.) The disclaimer read:


Holiday Decorations

The public holiday displays are strictly from private citizens or groups. They in no way represent an official view of the City of Cranston nor are they endorsed by the City.

(Osediacz Aff. Ex. C.)

On December 21, the forum was closed (meaning no more displays could be placed) and on December 22, Plaintiff filed her complaint.

II. Standard of Review

Summary judgment is warranted when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). When a motion for summary judgment is directed against a party that bears the burden of proof, the movant bears the "initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If that showing is made, the nonmovant then bears the burden of producing definite, competent evidence to rebut the motion. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The evidence "cannot be conjectural or problematic; it must have substance in the sense that it limns differing versions of the truth which a factfinder must resolve at an ensuing trial." Mack v. Great Atl. & Pac. Tea Co., Inc., 871 F.2d 179, 181 (1st Cir.1989). In other words, the nonmovant is required to establish that there is sufficient evidence to enable a jury to find in its favor. DeNovellis v. Shalala, 124 F.3d 298, 306 (1st Cir.1997).

Because this case also involves entry of sua sponte summary judgment on a part of Plaintiff's claim, a brief sketch of the standard of review for cross-motions for summary judgment is appropriate.5 "Cross motions for summary judgment do not alter the basic Rule 56 standard, but rather simply require [the Court] to determine whether either of the parties deserves judgment as a matter of law on facts that are not disputed." Adria Int'l Group, Inc. v. Ferre Dev., Inc., 241 F.3d 103, 107 (1st Cir.2001) (citing Wightman v. Springfield Terminal Ry. Co., 100 F.3d 228, 230 (1st Cir.1996)).

III. Analysis
A. The Establishment Clause Claim

The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." U.S. Const. amend. I. In the seminal case of Lemon v. Kurtzman, 403 U.S. 602, 91 S.Ct. 2105, 29 L.Ed.2d 745 (1971), the Supreme Court set out a test for evaluating Establishment Clause claims. Under Lemon, the Court looks to whether the state action: (1) has a secular purpose; (2) has the effect of advancing or inhibiting religion; and (3) fosters an excessive government entanglement with religion. Id. at 612-13, 91 S.Ct. 2105; see Boyajian v. Gatzunis, 212 F.3d 1, 4 (1st Cir.2000). 6

This Court will evaluate the City's holiday display as to each of these factors.

1. Purpose

A government program may be found unconstitutional because it has a religious purpose. The bar, however, is a high one. "The [Supreme] Court has invalidated legislation or governmental action on the ground that a secular purpose was lacking, but only when it has concluded there was no question that the statute or activity was motivated wholly by religious considerations." Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668, 680, 104 S.Ct. 1355, 79 L.Ed.2d 604 (1984). This is especially true where, as here, the allegation is that a religious purpose was behind the creation of a "limited public forum," that is, a place where private speakers are given the opportunity to express themselves on a certain topic.7 See Westside Comty. Schs. v. Mergens, 496 U.S. 226, 250, 110 S.Ct. 2356, 110 L.Ed.2d 191 (1990) (opinion of O'Connor, J.) ("[T]here is a crucial difference between government speech endorsing religion, which the Establishment Clause forbids, and private speech endorsing...

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