News & Politics

City Faces Legal Action After Police Arrested Christians for Praying Near Abortion Clinic

Justin Reeder, founder of Love Life, is arrested by Greensboro, N.C., police. (Image via Facebook screenshot)

Police in Greensboro, N.C., arrested pro-life Christians who were peacefully praying on the street outside an abortion clinic on Saturday and again on Monday, as PJ Media’s Paula Bolyard reported. Police claimed the Christians were breaking stay-at-home orders, but the pro-life protesters were abiding by social distancing rules, and the orders have designated “outdoor activity” as “essential.” Two religious freedom law firms have responded with a lawsuit and a demand letter claiming the city violated the protesters’ freedom of speech and the free exercise of religion.

“Prayer is still legal during this Pandemic,” Stephen Crampton, senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, which filed a lawsuit against Greensboro’s mayor on Thursday, said in a statement. “Greensboro’s Mayor Vaughan should be ashamed of herself for using the cover of this national crisis to attack public expressions of religious faith that she disagrees with. If Mayor Vaughan were truly interested in saving lives, she would shut down this abortion clinic, which is using up critical personal protective equipment needed for COVID-19 response.”

The Thomas More Society argues that the pro-life protesters, who were members of the Christian ministry Love Life, were complying with a Guilford County emergency proclamation and with a state-wide order related to the coronavirus crisis. The lawsuit also claims that police who accosted the Christians did not speak to or warn other individuals who were out and about in the area, two of whom appeared to be homeless. The officers only approached the pro-lifers.

“This wasn’t about public health and safety; it was about the government silencing people because it doesn’t like what they have to say,” Denise Harle, senior counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), which sent a demand letter to the city attorney on Thursday, said in a statement. “We support authorities’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but if other groups are free to assemble, people of faith should be, too. And if abortion clinics can stay open during the pandemic, Christians should be allowed to pray outside—particularly those abiding by health and safety guidelines, as our clients were.”

First Liberty, a religious freedom law firm that has successfully pressured Texas cities to drop policies singling out religious people for special coronavirus restrictions, is not involving itself in this case.

“We continue to advise religious leaders and government officials to work together during this time,” Mike Berry, general counsel at First Liberty, told PJ Media in a statement. “There is an appropriate balance between public health and constitutional rights. Government must be extra careful not to overreach during times of uncertainty. These shelter-in-place orders should not single out churches and ministries to be treated worse than other types of social gatherings.”

The Thomas More Society is representing Love Life members Paul Nisley, Josiah Chavez, David Troyer, and Jolene Troyer, none of whom were actually arrested in the two altercations. While these plaintiffs were not arrested, police did threaten to arrest them on Saturday. This allegedly violated their First Amendment rights to free speech and free exercise of religion.

In the lawsuit, the Society argues that the Love Life protesters followed all coronavirus regulations. The suit cites the Guilford County stay-at-home order issued on Monday, March 23, which clearly allows citizens to leave home for “outdoor activity, provided the individuals comply with Social Distancing Requirements, as defined herein, such as, by way of example and without limitation, walking, hiking, golfing, running, cycling, or using the greenways.”

The proclamation defined Social Distancing Requirements as “maintaining at least six-foot social distancing from other individuals, washing hands with soap and water for at least twenty seconds as frequently as possible or using hand sanitizer, covering coughs or sneezes (into the sleeve or elbow, not hands), regularly cleaning high-touch surfaces, and not shaking hands.”

According to the ADF letter, “Love Life ensured that, at all times, fewer than 10 individuals were present in its group, that each person was spaced at least 6 feet from any other person, and that they were equipped with sanitizer, as required by the Social Distancing provisions of the Emergency Proclamation.”

Even so, police threatened to arrest the Thomas More Society’s clients outside the abortion clinic Woman’s Choice of Greensboro on Saturday. Also that day, they arrested Love Life founder Justin Reeder, Love Life attorney Jason Oesterreich, Carl Ubinas, and Isaiah Burner, charging them with violating the stay-at-home order. Reeder, Osterreich, and Ubinas were charged with one count of Resist Delay Obstruct Public Officer.

Reeder, Osterreich, and Burner were arrested again on Monday, along with Leroy Stokes Jr., Andre Gonzalez, Richard Whittier, and John Mcatee.

Christian's praying and ministering in Greensboro abortion center this morning

Posted by Carl Ubiñas on Monday, March 30, 2020

The Greensboro Police issued a press release about the arrests on Monday, defending them as necessary for public safety.

“On March 28 at approximately 11:50 am Greensboro Police responded to 2425 Randleman Road in reference to a violation of the Stay at Home Order issued by Guilford County on Friday March, 27. Upon arrival Police encountered five individuals, four of whom refused to leave the location voluntarily. Pursuant to the terms of the County’s Order the four individuals were charged by citation for Traveling for a Non Essential Function G.S. 14-288.20A,” the release noted.

“The individuals arrested are part of a group that was contacted by police prior to their arrival on Saturday. Police were in contact with the group’s leaders earlier in the week and informed the group that their presence at A Women’s Choice of Greensboro on Saturday would be considered non-essential activity under the County’s Stay at Home Order and they would be subject to citation or arrest,” the police added. On Monday, “Greensboro Police Officers made every attempt to gain voluntary compliance before charging seven individuals with violation of the Guilford County Stay at Home Order and Resist Delay and Obstruct a Public Officer.”

“The intent of the Stay at Home Order is to curb the public health crisis in our community,” the press release added.

Yet the police never explained exactly why Love Life’s protest was considered “non-essential activity.”

ADF, which represents Love Life, argued that the pro-life group should be considered essential because the state’s Emergency Proclamation permits operations by “organizations that provide charitable and social services” including “religious and secular nonprofit organizations … when providing … social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged or otherwise needy individuals,” which should include unborn babies. The Emergency Proclamation also defines as essential “Human Services Operations,” which the order intentionally defines “broadly” to include “businesses that provide … social services, and other necessities of life for economically disadvantaged individuals … or otherwise needy individuals.”

While the Thomas More Society went ahead with the lawsuit, ADF warned the city attorney that “it is imperative that this situation be corrected immediately to avoid unnecessary litigation in federal court.” ADF’s potential litigation would involve the organization Love Life, while the Thomas More Society’s litigation involves four pro-life protesters with Love Life.

The lawsuit seeks a court restraining order against city officials and a preliminary injunction to restrain them from acting against the pro-life Christians, damages and attorney’s fees, along with a declaration that city’s interpretation of the coronavirus orders unconstitutionally violated the rights of the pro-life Christians. The ADF demand letter asks the Greensboro attorney to instruct police officers to stop interfering with Love Life’s constitutional rights. ADF gave Greensboro the opportunity to respond by the end of the business day on Friday.

Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.