A group of anti-abortion activists are suing Michigan, saying its shelter-in-place order curbs religious freedoms.
A group of abortion protesters have filed a lawsuit against Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, alleging her shelter-in-place order violates their constitutional right to assemble and protest.
According to MLive.com, one of the plaintiffs—listed as Andrew Belanger—says he was cited on March 31st by a Detroit police officer. Belanger was picketing outside Scotsdale Women’s Center when eight patrol cars pulled in front of him.
Belanger, along with other anti-abortion activists, say they were simply engaged in “peaceful expressive activity” when they were accosted by police. Furthermore, they claim to have maintained at least a six-foot distance between one another.
Michigan—along with some 30 other states—has issued guidance ordering residents to stay home in order to curb the spread of novel coronavirus. People are allowed to go outside for a limited number of reasons: obtaining groceries, getting fuel, or reporting to an “essential” job. There are also provisions permitting outdoor activity and exercise.
When outside, Michiganders are advised to stay at least six feet away people who aren’t members of their own household.
Those restrictions, say Belanger’s attorneys, pose a threat to their client’s First Amendment rights. The lawsuit also alleges that Belanger’s 14th Amendment rights to equal protection were violated when the activists were confronted and issued citations.
Belanger’s complaint alleges that the Detroit Police Department “injured plaintiffs in a way likely to chill a person of ordinary firmness from further participation in expressive religious activity.”
The suit suggests it’s unusual—and illegal—that Gov. Whitmer allows Michiganders to use sidewalks to exercise, but not to participate in acts of religious expression.
“The law violation described in the citation is ‘emergency powers of governor,’” the lawsuit states. “The offense described as ‘Subject refusing to leave, protesting outside while shutdown is in effect.’”
Chelsea Lewis, Gov. Whitmer’s deputy press secretary, issued a statement—reprinted in part by MLive.com—which seemed to defend the officers’ actions as necessary to protect public health.
“We are still reviewing the lawsuit and, as a matter of standard practice, do not comment on the specifics of pending litigation,” Lewis said. “The governor, however, carefully considers all of the actions she is taking in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and she is confident that these actions are lawful and necessary to protect the health and safety of Michiganders during this unprecedented public health emergency.”
Abortion advocates have urged Gov. Whitmer to continue enforcing shelter-in-place vigorously. Rev. Katherine Hancock Ragsdale, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, urged Lansing to ensure “pro-life” activists can’t claim religious exemptions to “harass” healthcare workers and women.
“As an Episcopal Priest, I appreciate your efforts to accommodate those who wish to gather in worship during these difficult times,” Ragsdale wrote, referencing Michigan’s decision to not exempt religious assemblies from shelter-in-place orders. “However, the persistence of anti-abortion protesters in gathering en masse outside of clinics is a public health issue that simply must be addressed, and the unfortunate fact of the matter is that the religious exemption to Michigan’s stay at home order ahs become these extremists’ carte balance for harassing health care workers and their patients, and increasing their odds of COVID-19 exposure in the process.”