Pro-Life Activists Assert Right to Public Prayer During Pandemic

April 5, 2020 Updated: April 6, 2020

Pro-life activists who had been praying on public sidewalks outside an abortion provider in Greensboro, North Carolina, are suing that city’s mayor after local police threatened to arrest them for allegedly violating stay-at-home orders aimed at containing the CCP virus.

The lawsuit comes as the nation’s governors have invoked sweeping emergency powers to combat the virus, placing most Americans under stay-at-home orders. Government officials claim the so-called lockdowns, in which some states are threatening to fine and imprison violators, are critical components in the effort to “flatten the curve” of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, or prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed.

Some critics have been questioning the wisdom of stay-home orders, which can vary widely from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. And some advocates say the economy must be re-opened, even if only in stages, because the damage caused by economic and social upheaval may be greater than the suffering caused by the virus.

The plaintiffs in this case are pro-life “witnesses” who had been walking and praying on public ways outside an abortion clinic known as A Woman’s Choice of Greensboro. Their activities consisted primarily in walking and praying in order to share alternatives and inform the women going to the clinic of the dangers they say are inherent in abortion. Some were wearing “love life” shirts, according to their lawyer.

The mayor being sued is Nancy Vaughan, a Democrat, whom critics have accused of suppressing free speech at city council meetings. She didn’t immediately respond to a request by The Epoch Times for comment.

“It’s almost completely non-obstructive, non-confrontational, as peaceful and benign as you could imagine,” Stephen Crampton, senior counsel at the Chicago-based Thomas More Society, a public-interest law firm specializing in religious freedom issues, told The Epoch Times.

“Our people were complying with all so-called social distancing requirements and health and safety requirements here. The issue is whether you have any First Amendment right to engage in peaceful expressive conduct under these circumstances. Of course, you should. You must,” he said.

“If we allow them to shut down all free speech in public right out of the box, what does that mean in the next go-around? We’ve got the next worst thing to martial law going on around here, and are we just going to roll over and forfeit our rights without even a whimper?”

The lawsuit challenges Greenboro’s Stay-at-Home Order and the state’s Stay-at-Home Order, known as Executive Order 121, which was issued by Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, claiming they violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The plaintiffs seek injunctions preventing the orders from being enforced.

“Prayer is still legal during this pandemic,” Crampton said.

“Greensboro’s Mayor Vaughan should be ashamed of herself for using the cover of this national crisis to attack public expressions of religious faith that she disagrees with. If Mayor Vaughan were truly interested in saving lives, she would shut down this abortion clinic, which is using up critical personal protective equipment needed for COVID-19 response.”

Crampton said, “Our many other clients have continued their life-affirming witness on public sidewalks outside abortion providers across the country, in full compliance with other states’ stay-at-home orders. Greensboro police have misused the stay-at-home orders here to silence the free speech and free exercise of religion guaranteed to every American citizen by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.”

Even some abortion opponents have been reluctant to support the prayer-walkers involved in this legal dispute, he said.

“Some folks, even people who would otherwise be in favor of our clients’ activities are a little squeamish because of the pandemic and health and safety concerns and so forth. I think it’s really important that we not lose sight of the bigger picture; we can’t just compromise and in fact forfeit fundamental constitutional rights every time there’s an emergency or a disaster.

“And the whole point of the so-called outdoor activity exception in these stay-home orders is to allow, in fact, encourage people to go out walking, biking, jogging, get your outdoor activities so that you’re not just going nuts on the inside and maintaining healthy lifestyles. So walking is encouraged. It appears the city of Greensboro just doesn’t want you walking and praying outside their abortion clinic.”

Crampton said he expects there will be a hearing in the case, known as Nisley v. Vaughan, on April 7 in federal court in Greensboro. The lawsuit was initiated April 2.

Correction: A previous version of this article stated the pro-life activists praying on public sidewalks outside an abortion clinic in Greensboro, North Carolina, are suing the city after being arrested by police for violating stay-at-home orders. In fact, the activists involved in the lawsuit were threatened with arrest by police, after which they complied with police orders to disperse. The Epoch Times regrets the error.