Following the The Daily Citizen’s April 6 article about Greensboro, N.C., police arresting pro-life sidewalk counselors for allegedly violating a county coronavirus emergency proclamation and stay-at-home order, the city has doubled down on its position. It now claims that it is entitled to silence all free speech activities, even if the participants are following the social distancing guidelines in the county’s proclamation.
That response from the city has now prompted a federal lawsuit by the pro-life group whose members were arrested.
The pro-life group involved, Global Impact Ministries, operating under the name Love Life, sent the sidewalk counselors to Greensboro, where they were arrested on March 28 and 30, and charged with violating the terms of the county’s emergency proclamation.
How did they supposedly violate the proclamation? According to the charges leveled against them, by: traveling for “non-essential purposes”—by driving (rather than walking) to the site of the abortion clinic, and for coming from outside the county. Neither of those latter two “requirements” are listed in the county’s emergency proclamation. Indeed, they make no sense at all.
The group is represented by Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). The city rejected ADF’s warning contained in an April 2 letter that it had violated Love Life’s constitutional rights and instead claimed unlimited powers over all “activities” – including First Amendment activities such as Love Life’s prayer walks near the abortion clinic. Here’s the amendment that the county tacked on to its proclamation after receiving ADF’s letter:
“Outdoor activity means outside exercise and/or recreational activity. It does not include outside activity for other purposes.”
So the county (and hence the city) will allow people outdoors to walk or run for exercise, have picnics, ride bikes, etc. but people who pray while walking on a sidewalk (near an abortion clinic) are prohibited.
That’s neither reasonable nor logical. In fact, it’s almost assuredly unconstitutional.
ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, in a press release, reacted to the city’s latest position: “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,” she stated. “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.”
Restrictions on First Amendment activities can only be justified if they are neutral and generally applicable to all. Creating exemptions for other types of activity but not First Amendment activity means the restriction is not generally applicable; if the restriction is used to target only certain expressive activities such as pro-lifers walking and praying, it is not neutral either.
The city and county ought to face a difficult time when this matter is heard by a federal judge. We’ll follow this suit and report back on developments as they occur.
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