PHILADELPHIA — A federal appeals court has upheld a lower court’s dismissal of a lawsuit alleging that the mayor of Philadelphia discriminated against Italian Americans in renaming the city’s Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
A U.S. District judge ruled a year ago that the plaintiffs, a council member and three Italian American heritage groups, hadn’t been harmed by Mayor Jim Kenney’s executive order, and therefore none of them had standing to sue over the issue.
Judge David Porter, writing for the three-judge panel of the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday, said the government “does not violate the Equal Protection Clause every time it affirms or celebrates an ethnicity. Otherwise, Columbus Day itself would arguably have been an equal protection violation – but of course it wasn’t.”
As it stands, “Irish American city employees who wish to celebrate St. Patrick must take a personal day,” and the city doesn’t close for Yom Kippur or give time off for the Lunar New Year, the court said.
The plaintiffs might have a case if the city celebrated every ethnicity but “conspicuously excluded” Italian Americans, but not from selective celebration of particular ethnicities alone, the court said. For plaintiffs seeking redress for such an “offense,” the court said, “their remedy is political, not legal.”
Attorney George Bochetto, who filed the lawsuit, told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an email Friday evening that the plaintiffs are disappointed but he has “every intention” of appealing the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Many Italian Americans have embraced the 15th century explorer – once hailed as the discoverer of America – as a cultural hero and emblem of the city’s deep Italian heritage. Kenney has said that despite centuries of veneration, Columbus had a “much more infamous” history, enslaving Indigenous people and imposing harsh punishments.
Bochetto’s lawsuit on the holiday argued there was a pattern of the city targeting Italian Americans, citing attempts to cover and remove a Columbus statue in south Philadelphia and removal of a statue of ex-mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo at the municipal services building near City Hall after it became a target for protests.
Bochetto won a separate lawsuit against the city last month when a state court ordered the removal of a box covering the south Philadelphia Columbus statue. The statue, which dates to 1876 and was presented to the city by the Italian American community to commemorate the nation’s centennial, was covered in June 2020 after it became a focus of racial justice protests following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Kenney argued for removal of the statue as a matter of public safety, and a city arts panel and a historical commission agreed, but a judge reversed the city’s decision, citing a lack of evidence that the statue’s removal was necessary to protect the public. Before its removal, the box covering the statue had been painted in green, white and red bands, mirroring the Italian flag, at the request of the city council member who represents the district.
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