A handful of Christians arrested in March and April 2020 for walking and praying in front of an abortion facility in Greensboro, North Carolina, have finally won some vindication of their clear free speech rights following a settlement of their claims against the city as well as Guilford County, which issued the restrictive health order that led to their arrest.
Lawyers with Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) announced the settlement, which involves a payment from the city of $15,000 for legal fees involved in the case, along with an agreement that engaging in peaceful prayer and sidewalk counseling outside an abortion facility is protected by the First Amendment.
Global Impact Ministries, operating under the name Love Life, mobilized representatives of the organization to walk and pray near A Woman’s Choice abortion facility on three occasions in late March and early April 2020, soon after the county’s health officials had issued a COVID-19 order against congregating with 10 or more people. The sidewalk counselors who showed up on those occasions numbered less than 10 and maintained required social distancing and followed hand sanitizing recommendations also contained in the county’s orders.
Notably, the county’s order allowed for outdoor exercise. It would have been perfectly fine for anyone to walk the streets of Greensboro to get some fresh air or go shopping.
However, the counselors were all arrested and handcuffed for walking and praying silently on the public sidewalk and spent one or more hours in jail on each occasion. The police told them that First Amendment activity was not permitted under the county’s order.
No one else was ever arrested or cited for violating the county’s COVID order except for those sidewalk counselors exercising their First Amendment rights.
Global Impact Ministries filed a lawsuit seeking damages and a judicial declaration that the city of Greensboro and Guilford County violated the constitutional rights of all involved. That’s the lawsuit that has now resulted in a settlement and a mutually agreed dismissal of the case.
“The government can concern itself with health and safety and still respect the constitutionally protected freedoms guaranteed to citizens,” said ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life. “From the beginning, this case has been about government silencing people because it didn’t like what they had to say.
“If abortion businesses could stay open to perform elective abortions during the pandemic, Christians abiding by health and safety guidelines should certainly be allowed to pray outside. We commend Guilford County officials for agreeing to respect the free speech rights of Love Life members and acknowledging their freedom to pray and speak in the public square, and we invite the city of Greensboro to do the same.”
If the COVID-19 experience has taught us anything about repressive government edicts, it is this: There is no “pandemic exception” to the First Amendment. Kudos to those sidewalk counselors in Greensboro who not only showed up at a difficult moment in time in order to pray for preborn lives, but suffered arrest, embarrassment and inconvenience for the ultimate sake of the constitutional rights of the rest of us to live out the Gospel in the public square.
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