On Tuesday, a pro-life Christian organization sued Greensboro, N.C., and the surrounding Guilford County after members of the group were arrested for praying outside an abortion clinic. They were abiding by the social distancing rules in the county’s Emergency Proclamation. Local police arrested the Christians for supposedly violating the order set in place to fight the coronavirus when they were not. After the law firm Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent the city a demand order to halt these attacks, the city doubled down. It even altered the order to single out religious speech.
Global Impact Ministries, which runs the pro-life charity Love Life, sued Greensboro on Tuesday. ADF is representing Global Impact Ministries in the suit, which accuses the city of violating many constitutional rights: the free exercise of religion, free speech, due process, freedom of expressive association, equal protection of the laws, and the right of religious Americans not to be targeted for their religion under the Establishment Clause.
“The government can’t allow some people to walk and talk on sidewalks and then say that these pro-life citizens can’t walk and pray there. This was never 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 ADF, said in a statement announcing the lawsuit.
Both Global Impact Ministries and ADF support the government’s coronavirus restrictions, but they argue that praying outside an abortion clinic did not violate them.
“While we support the efforts of authorities to prioritize the public’s health and safety, people of faith can’t be singled out as the city has done here. If abortion businesses can stay open to perform elective abortions during the pandemic, Christians who abide by health and safety guidelines should certainly be allowed to pray outside,” Harle added.
The lawsuit makes six claims against the city and the county. The suit explains that Love Life halted its usual practice of silent prayer walks conducted by volunteers and encouraged any volunteers who wish to walk individually to do so while abiding by CDC social distancing requirements. However, Love Life staff continued to engage in prayer walking and other efforts to save the lives of the unborn.
Even so, police threatened to arrest Love Life volunteers 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. Yet the police never explained exactly why Love Life’s protest was considered “non-essential activity.”
The lawsuit claims that the Guilford County order’s provision for “Essential Businesses and Operations” includes Love Life’s activities under the heading of “Human Services Operations.” According to the order, “businesses that provide … social services, and other necessities fo life for economically disadvantaged individuals … or otherwise needy individuals” can continue to operate as essential. Furthermore, the order expressly permitted “outdoor activity.”
Yet on April 10, the county amended its order specifically to target prayer walking, the lawsuit alleges. The April 10 revision states, “Outdoor activity means outside exercise and/or recreational activity. It does not include outside activity for other purposes.”
According to the lawsuit, the city and county violated Love Life’s right to free exercise of religion by forcing them to cease their religious expression while permitting other outdoor activities. Similarly, the authorities allegedly violated the Christians’ free speech by giving “the City unbounded discretion to punish disfavored speech on pregnancy, motherhood, sexuality, abortions, and unborn life, and other topics of public concern, by interpreting provisions of the Order contrary to the plain meaning of the words.” They similarly violated Love Life’s right to expressive association.
The authorities allegedly violated the Christians’ right to due process by issuing a vague order and applying it against them. They violated the Christians’ right to equal protection of the laws by twisting the order unfairly against them. Finally, the lawsuit claims the city and the county violated the First Amendment’s ban on legislation “respecting an establishment of religion” by “manifesting hostility toward religious speech and belief.”
ADF’s lawsuit representing Love Life was not the first case against Greensboro over the arrests. Other Love Life volunteers who did not get arrested, represented by the Thomas More Society, filed a lawsuit against Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan earlier this month.
“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,” Stephen Crampton, a senior counsel at the Thomas More Society, said in a statement. “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.”
Petty tyrants across America have used the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to restrict religious freedom and other liberties Americans enjoy under the Constitution, issuing regulations that have nothing to do with stopping the spread of the coronavirus — like bans on drive-in church services, bans on singing in livestream church services, and bans on praying outside abortion clinics. Law firms like ADF and the Thomas More Society are holding them accountable for abusing this crisis.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.