Washington D.C., Apr 9, 2020 / 02:30 pm (CNA).- As many abortion clinics remain open during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, pro-life sidewalk counselors argue that they too provide “essential” services and should be allowed to gather.
As the coronavirus has spread through the U.S., states, counties and municipalities have curtailed public gatherings of more than 10 people to comply with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
Some pro-life prayer vigils have been halted for weeks as a public health precaution. On March 22, the ministry 40 Days for Life ended its spring 2020 campaign of public prayer vigils outside abortion clinics as state and local restrictions on public gatherings increased in number and intensity.
Even as states act to prevent unnecessary gatherings and divert all available medical resources to fight the pandemic, in many places abortion clinics have been designated as providing “essential” services, and allowed to tremain open. In several states, orders to cancel non-essential medical procedures during the pandemic which included elective abortions have been challeneged in court by abortion providers like Planned Parenthood.
While the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Texas’ abortion-limiting order this week, the Sixth Circuit allowed procedures to continue in Ohio. Federal judges in Alabama and Oklahoma also ruled against state orders limiting abortions in those states during the pandemic.
Some pro-life prayer vigils and sidewalk counseling have continued, but in several states participants have been subject to visits by law enforcement.
According to Live Action News, pro-life prayer vigils outside abortion clinics in Michigan, Ohio, California, and Wisconsin were recently approached by law enforcement and asked to leave for supposedly being in violation of state or local orders. No arrests were made in those cases.
However, in two cases in North Carolina, arrests were made at pro-life prayer vigils for supposedly being in violation of the state’s prohibition on public gatherings larger than 10 people.
Pro-life advocate David Benham, president of Cities4Life, and other pro-life sidewalk counselors were arrested by police in Charlotte, North Carolina on April 4 for being part of a gathering of more than 10 people. They were praying and offering sidewalk counseling outside the abortion clinic A Preferred Women’s Health Center.
According to social media for the Charlotte-Mecklenberg Police Department, around 50 people were observed by police to be gathered outside the clinic.
The department said that “officers observed approximately fifty (50) protesters congregating outside of the clinic. The gathering was determined to be a violation of mass gatherings in the North Carolina Stay at Home Order. Those who exceeded the allowed amount of ten were asked to leave.”
The state’s governor Roy Cooper had issued an executive order on March 27 ordering residents to “stay at home” except for “essential” activities.
In a video, Benham was seen telling an officer that he was part of a “recognized charity” that was “offering essential services” to women who were considering abortions.
He told the officer that he and other pro-life counselors were “practicing social distancing,” and that the police should “go in the abortion clinic and make the arrests there” out of concern for mass gatherings during the pandemic.
Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) tweeted that Benham’s arrest was “unconstitutional and a serious abuse of power.”
The legal group Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) sent a letter to the city’s attorney on Benham’s behalf, arguing that Benham’s group and Love Life, another group of pro-life advocates, are not subject to the order’s 10-person gathering prohibition as they are charitable organizations providing social services.
Furthermore, on April 4 the pro-life advocates were outdoors with people properly spaced apart, ADF said. Counsel for the groups had previously confirmed with a police officer that they were within their rights to pray on sidewalks outside the clinic provided that they maintained a six-foot minimum distance between persons and had hand sanitizer available.
ADF argued in its letter that the pro-life groups are religious nonprofits “providing charitable and social support services to vulnerable persons” and thus “qualify as ‘Essential Business’” under the governor’s order and should not be subject to the 10-person limit on gatherings.
The right to free speech “in public fora like the streets and sidewalks” is “well-established,” ADF said, and “[a]ny prohibition on this expressive activity in these fora is subject to strict scrutiny.” The city’s act to disperse the prayer gathering of more than ten people outside is “arbitrary and a pretext for discrimination based on protected speech,” ADF said.
“Please instruct any City of Charlotte officers or employees to drop all criminal charges pending against my clients and discontinue their interference with their right to engage in assembly, prayer, counseling, and other expressive activities on public property,” ADF senior counsel Kevin Theriot stated in his letter.
Members of the group Love Life were also arrested in Greensboro, North Carolina on March 28 and again on March 30 while praying outside an abortion clinic. According to citations, they were arrested for travel[ing] for a non-essential function [/purpose],” unlawfully traveling by car to the location rather than on foot.
ADF also sent a letter to the city of Greensboro on behalf of the pro-life advocates, saying the groups limited their activities to fewer than 10 people to comply with local regulations, and that participants were spaced out more than six feet apart.
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