A federal court has dismissed a lawsuit alleging that Mayor Jim Kenney engaged in a pattern of discrimination against Italian Americans capped off by an executive order last year changing the name of the city’s Columbus Day holiday to Indigenous Peoples’ Day.
Finding that none of the plaintiffs — which included City Councilmember Mark Squilla and three Italian American heritage groups — had actually been harmed by the decision to rename the holiday, U.S. District Judge C. Darnell Jones II ruled that none of them had standing to sue.
What’s more, the judge noted in a 20-page opinion filed late Wednesday, even if they could prove such harm, they had failed to sufficiently argue that the name change was motivated by any intent to discriminate.
“There is no constitutional right to have the second Monday in October go by a certain name or to have a holiday to celebrate a particular ethnicity,” Jones wrote. “Moreover, they have failed to show even one instance of how their lives have changed because of Kenney’s executive order.”
The suit, which was filed in April by lawyer George Bochetto — a veteran of previous culture-war legal battles with the city who declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate as a Republican this week — was panned by Kenney at the time as a “patently meritless political ploy.”
“We’re grateful for the court’s ruling,” Kevin Lessard, spokesperson for the mayor, said Thursday, adding: “We remain committed to allowing residents to celebrate their heritage and culture in the manner they choose, while respecting the histories and circumstances of their fellow Philadelphians that come from different backgrounds.”
Bochetto vowed an immediate appeal.
“To suggest that various Italian American organizations and particularly Councilman Mark Squilla have no standing to challenge Mayor Kenney’s unilateral cancellation of Columbus Day is completely unrealistic and completely contrary to what’s actually taken place,” he said. “No one’s had more actual harm than these Italian American groups.”
The legal dispute arose during a particularly fractious period between the mayor, a South Philadelphian of Irish descent, and his neighborhood’s large Italian American population as the city has wrestled over the last two years with larger questions about racial justice, equality, and cultural representation.
In addition to their grievances over the renaming of Columbus Day, the suit’s plaintiffs ticked off a list of other complaints against the mayor — including his administration’s efforts to remove Christopher Columbus statues from Marconi Plaza and Penn’s Landing as well as a statue of former Mayor and Police Commissioner Frank L. Rizzo from outside the Municipal Services Building after it became a target for protests against police brutality.
They also contended that the administration had discriminated against Italians not including zip codes with the largest Italian American populations among those it prioritized during the early distribution of COVID-19 vaccines last year. Kenney balked at that claim, noting that the city focused its vaccine outreach to areas and demographic groups with low vaccination rates.
But in his opinion Wednesday, Jones, the judge, largely sidestepped those other complaints to focus on the Columbus Day issue. He noted that debates over the Columbus and Rizzo statues were already the subject of separate litigation — including another suit Jones dismissed Thursday from the Frank L. Rizzo Monument Committee, which commissioned the statue of the former mayor and donated it to the city in 1998.
In that case, Jones rejected an argument that the city had violated the committee’s rights by removing the monument in June 2020. But in kicking the matter back to state court, the judge suggested the group may have a viable case to make that the contract governing the city’s use of the statue requires it be given back to the committee if it’s no longer on public display. City lawyers say the statue is currently being held in a secure facility.
As for his decision in the Columbus Day case, Jones noted that
dozens of other cities across the country have also moved to change the holiday’s name in recent years as historians reevaluate the man’s legacy, his views on race, and his treatment of Native Americans.
Kenney announced Philadelphia would do so in February in an order that also recognized the Juneteenth holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people in the United States. He explained the move as “an acknowledgment of centuries of institutional racism and marginalization that have been forced upon Black Americans, Indigenous people and other communities of color.”
Jones rejected the argument put forth by the plaintiffs that the decision had anything to do with Columbus’ ethnicity as opposed to his individual actions. He added that Kenney’s order would not prohibit Italian American groups from continuing to refer to the day as Columbus Day or celebrating the man as they saw fit.
In fact, one of the plaintiffs — the nonprofit 1492 Society, the group that plans the city’s annual Columbus Day parade — organized the same event in October despite their claims in the lawsuit.
“Just because a plaintiff disagrees with the government’s actions … does not equate to discriminatory treatment,” Jones wrote. “This Court fails to see how they have been personally impacted and harmed.”
Jones threw out the suit’s discrimination claims with prejudice, meaning they can’t be refiled. But he left open the possibility that the plaintiffs could seek to pursue in state court their arguments that Kenney failed to follow the proper procedure under state law for changing the day’s name.
Pennsylvania statutes bar cities from taking any action that is inconsistent with state law. Renaming a holiday that is recognized by the state as Columbus Day violates those rules, said Bochetto, the plaintiffs’ lawyer.
He vowed to continue to pursue that argument in court.
Read the Columbus Day opinion:
Read the opinion on the Frank Rizzo statue: