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Residents sue Massachusetts city for removing commemorative bricks

By The Associated Press

01.24.01

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BOSTON — Two residents are suing the city of Newburyport for removing their commemorative bricks from a city park following complaints that the bricks contained religious and political messages.

The two bricks, which were part of a fund-raising effort for the children's playground in Woodman Park, were inscribed with the messages "Jesus Loves You" and "For All the Unborn Children."

The residents, while contending that their messages were misunderstood, charged that the city violated their constitutional rights to freedom of speech and religion. The lawsuit was filed yesterday in U.S. District Court in Boston.

The bricks were part of a project organized by the Friends of Woodman Park, a community organization. With the city's permission, the project allowed residents, for $60, to have a personal message inscribed in a brick, which was then set in a sidewalk next to the children's playground.

But, according to Mayor Lisa Mead, shortly after the sidewalk was unveiled last September, city officials received a couple of complaints from residents concerned that the messages on the bricks violated the constitutional separation of church and state and allowed controversial political messages on public property.

"It's city property," Mead said. "Whatever's put on that property needs to comply with the law."

She said the brick inscribed "Jesus Loves You," sponsored by Thomas Savastano, was taken to be a religious comment. The other brick, which read "For All the Unborn Children," was taken to be a political message against abortion.

The lawsuit, filed by Marie Cupo and Savastano, contends that Mead ordered the community group to remove the bricks.

But Mead, who says she has not seen the suit, contends that she requested the community organization to contact the bricks' sponsors and ask if the bricks could be removed. She said she heard nothing more until she was contacted by the plaintiffs' lawyers in December.

The community organization could not be reached for comment.

But the plaintiffs both want the city to replace the bricks.

"I filed my lawsuit because of a sense of being wronged," said Cupo, who explained that she had placed the brick in memory of a child she lost in the late stages of pregnancy two years ago, not as a political statement.

"In my mind, it was a resting place," she said.

Cupo, who says she is not involved with any political group, recalled that the community group had contacted her to tell her the mayor said the bricks should be removed.

The city "took somebody's heartfelt circumstances and destroyed them without a second thought," she added.

Savastano noted that his brick's message was "just meant as an expression of God's love."

"I have no real agenda," he said.

The suit, which claims the city violated the First and 14th Amendments, is seeking a permanent injunction prohibiting the defendants "from continuing with their discriminatory actions."

The residents are being represented by the Washington, D.C.-based American Center for Law and Justice, a public-interest law firm that specializes in cases involving religious freedom.

"If (the city) opens up the walkway, it can't pick and choose on the basis of the content of the message," said Benjamin W. Bull, senior counsel for the ACLJ. "This is about as clear-cut as it gets."

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