In places like San Francisco, Calif., Milwaukee, Wisc., Greensboro, N.C. and Charlotte, N.C. a new phenomenon is appearing that highlights the constitutional dangers associated with government “stay-at-home” orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Sidewalk pro-life counselors have either been arrested or threatened with arrest for showing up to pray in front of abortion clinics that have been permitted to continue their deadly business while other businesses close down.
This new and dangerous practice of shutting down First Amendment freedoms in support of abortion is an eye-opening look into the warnings that civil libertarians have been sounding of late about allowing the government to go too far in its stay-at-home and closure orders.
In San Francisco, the very first person to be cited for violating a stay-at-home order was 86-year-old Ronald Konopaski, arrested for walking on the sidewalk in front of an abortion clinic and praying.
In Milwaukee, a group of sidewalk counselors were threatened with arrest and ordered to disperse, but apparently have been allowed to continue their activities for now. They remain concerned, however, that the current truce could end at any time.
In Charlotte, N.C., David Benham and eight other members of Cities4Life were arrested in front of an abortion clinic for failing to abide by the state’s stay at home laws. Benham says that his group complied with every part of the state rules, including limiting their gathering to nine people, maintaining a 6-foot distance from one another, and using hand sanitizer frequently.
Finally, in Greensboro, N.C., a group of sidewalk counselors were arrested for violating the county health emergency order for gathering in front of an abortion clinic just as they’d always done in the past. The authorities emphasized that the group drove cars (rather than walking) and came from outside the county, two prohibitions not contained anywhere in the emergency law.
The Greensboro incident prompted Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) to get involved at the request of the pro-lifers involved. According to a letter ADF sent to the Greensboro city attorney, the group brought less than ten people, kept a 6-foot distance from everyone, and kept hand sanitizer on hand and used it frequently.
In a press release, ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle said, “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.”
If a stay-at-home order is applied across the board to all entities, you have what is called a “neutral law of general applicability,” which in an emergency like the one we are currently enduring might justify some type of restraint on First Amendment activities for a limited period of time and only in certain locations. But when government orders allow hundreds, if not thousands of other businesses and people to operate during the pandemic, but only certain elements of the public are targeted to have their constitutional rights revoked, you’re not dealing with a generally applicable law. And if the government is using such orders primarily against religious people and organizations, it is not neutral, either.
We shouldn’t allow the emergency nature of the COVID-19 pandemic to be turned into an excuse for overbroad censorship of the pro-life message. The fact that we’re seeing the government invoke these quarantine laws only when it comes to protecting abortion clinics is very troubling. At a time when many states have prohibited abortion clinics from operating (along with every other medical clinic performing non-essential procedures) in order to preserve personal protective equipment for the battle against COVID-19, to allow abortion clinics to remain open while punishing pro-life speech is clearly ideologically driven and dangerous to people’s health, not to mention the Constitution.