By L.A. Williams
Christian Action League
October 13, 2022
As part of the settlement of a lawsuit, Greensboro officials have admitted that pro-life prayer walkers cited in March and April 2020 were arrested while exercising their “constitutionally protected First Amendment rights” and have promised to allow citizens to demonstrate peacefully on public sidewalks, even during public health emergencies.
“According to Greensboro officials, praying while walking was not allowed because of COVID-19. Clearly, this case was never about public health and safety; it was about the government silencing people because it didn’t like what they had to say,” said Denise Harle, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, in a press release. ADF represented Love Life, also known as Global Impact Ministries, in the case.
“That said, we commend the city for finally agreeing to respect the free speech rights of Love Life members and acknowledge their freedom to pray and speak in the public square, just like every other citizen’s,” Harle said.
The conflict between Greensboro, Guilford County and Love Life began shortly after COVID-19 restrictions regarding gatherings and social distancing were being implemented by state and local governments. Love Life supporters who gathered outside of A Woman’s Choice abortion clinic, as they did each week, were careful to follow rules regarding the number of people in their gathering and how far apart they should stand as they prayed. Even so, law enforcement officials arrested several prayer walkers, accusing them of violating the county’s emergency COVID-19 proclamation and threatening them with 60 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. They also claimed the Love Life members had engaged in “travel for a non-essential function,” despite the fact that no travel restriction existed for organizations like Love Life that provide free social services to those in need.
Eight pro-life supporters and Global Impact Ministries sued the city and county for the improper arrests. Guilford County settled its portion of the suit in February, admitting the wrongful arrests and paying $15,000 toward the pro-life members’ attorneys’ fees.
Friday’s settlement, a joint stipulation of dismissal with prejudice, was brought before the United States District Court for the Middle District of North Carolina. Love Life members Justin Reeder, Carl Ubinas, Jason Oesterreich, Isaiah Burner, Andre Gonzalez, Leroy Stokes, Jr., Richard Whittier, and Jon McAtee agreed to forgo seeking damages from the City of Greensboro based on the city’s admission that their rights were violated.
Focus on the Family legal analyst Bruce Hausknecht said this case highlights the dangers of allowing the government to trample constitutional rights, even in an “emergency.”
“The temptation to use a ‘public emergency’ as a pretext for shutting down messages the government doesn’t agree with can be too great to resist, as these pro-life sidewalk counselors learned to their detriment,” Hausknecht wrote in a Daily Citizen article.
He cited a letter in which the U.S. Department of Justice reminded California’s governor that, “there is no pandemic exception to the U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights.”
The Rev. Mark Creech, executive director of the Christian Action League, commended the Love Life prayer walkers and their ADF advocates for pressing the case to a positive resolution.
“It’s my hope that other municipalities across North Carolina and the nation will learn from this and take steps to ensure that First Amendment rights are protected,” he said.