Attorneys for the far-right Christian group Alliance Defending Freedom announced plans last week to sue the city of Greensboro, North Carolina, after police there arrested a group of anti-choice protesters who had gathered outside a local abortion clinic in defiance of the city's ongoing stay-at-home order to help stop the spread of coronavirus. The Alliance Defending Freedom protesters are the second group in as many days to sue the city and its officials, including Mayor Nancy Vaughan (D), for what they claim is an infringement of anti-abortion protesters' First Amendment rights.
According to a statement from the Greensboro Police, the protesters had previously been warned that their gathering would be considered "non-essential activity under the county’s stay-at-home order and they would be subject to citation or arrest."
"This wasn’t about public health and safety; it was about the government silencing people because it doesn’t like what they have to say,” ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle said in a statement announcing the suit. “We support authorities’ efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety, but if other groups are free to assemble, people of faith should be, too. And if abortion clinics can stay open during the pandemic, Christians should be allowed to pray outside — particularly those abiding by health and safety guidelines, as our clients were."
Both Texas and Ohio initially deemed abortion services as "non-essential" amidst the states' responses to the coronavirus outbreak. North Carolina, apart from its largely restrictive legislation surrounding women's health, has allowed clinics to remain open.
In a statement to local alt-weekly Triad City Beat, Greensboro City Attorney Chuck Watts explained that in at least one of the incidents, protesters came to Greensboro from elsewhere, potentially acting as a vector for the disease.
"They want to find some sort of safe harbor in the exceptions to the stay-at-home order; there are none,” he told the paper. “Any travel is problematic. [The order] uses labels like ‘essential services’ and ‘essential business.’ It authorized you to go get fresh air and walk around. That does not mean you have a license to travel anywhere in the state or the county to get that fresh air. It’s saying if you want to walk around your house, that’s fine." He continued:
The idea that people around the state would decide to descend on Greensboro — they’re choosing to come here to protest. I have a problem with their protest. I have a problem with them traveling here. There are areas with a bigger incidence of coronavirus. They could be bringing it here. The police have to be monitoring them, and that compromises their safety.
A Facebook video posted by one of the groups protesting admits that the anti-choice activists "were in Charlotte earlier this morning" and made the nearly two-hour trip to Greensboro because "we got a report that in Greensboro, the police have pushed against people being out here to pray, even though we’re doing social distancing."