On July 17, 2020, the American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) filed a federal civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, challenging the enforcement of Governor Whitmer’s restriction on “social gatherings” as applied to restrict wedding ceremonies and receptions.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of Baker Events, LLC, Jay Carl, its manager, and David Vansolkema and Kiley Stuller, who are planning to get married on July 24, 2020 at the Baker Events’ wedding property located in Holland, Michigan.
On July 2, 2020, Baker Events received a “cease and desist order” from the Ottawa County Department of Public Health, stating that weddings are not permitted on its property despite the strict health and safety measures that Baker Events put in place, which include, among others, the installation of air purifiers, multiple sanitation stations, and the implementation of social distancing and mask-wearing protocols consistent with the guidance issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
When Baker Events questioned the Ottawa County’s Corporation Counsel regarding why restaurants, for example, are able to operate at 50% capacity (which Baker Events was willing to do), but weddings are not permitted at 50% capacity, pointing out as well that weddings are nonetheless religious worship and thus exempt per the express terms of the Governor’s orders, the Corporation Counsel responded via email in relevant part as follows:
- A wedding reception is NOT a religious worship activity; it is a social gathering.
- A wedding ceremony—even if a minister is involved, is not a religious worship service as those terms are used by the Governor. . . .
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise commented:
“This tyranny has gone so far now that the Governor does not consider a wedding ceremony to be religious worship. This is not only demonstrably false, it is an exceedingly dangerous attack on religious freedom. This has to stop. As Benjamin Franklin reminded us, ‘Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety.’”
Under Governor Whitmer’s executive orders, places of religious worship are exempt from her restrictions, and the executive order restricting “social gatherings,” EO 2020-110, expressly states that “nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances.”
As alleged in the lawsuit:
“Three days after she issued EO 2020-110, Defendant Whitmer promoted and even participated in an outdoor social gathering that far exceeded 100 persons. When questioned about her decision to march ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with ‘hundreds of’ protesters—conduct prohibited under EO 2020-110 even for outdoor gatherings—Defendant Whitmer’s spokesperson explained that this social gathering did not violate the executive order because ‘[n]othing in th[e] order . . . abridge[s] protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution.’”
“Beyond her personal participation in these social gatherings, Defendant Whitmer allowed protestors to assemble in large groups of well over 100 persons for nearly the entire month of June.”
“Consequently, Defendant Whitmer is willing to allow spontaneous, uncontrolled, and large social gatherings promoting one type of message, while prohibiting Plaintiffs’ organized weddings, even though the weddings, unlike the permitted protests, would be carried out with significant health and safety measures.”
AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel David Yerushalmi added:
“Only in a world turned upside down and inside out do governors and mayors embrace the nihilist violence of the weaponized term ‘Black Lives Matter’ while threatening responsible religious worship with criminal sanction. AFLC will not bow to this vile idolatry.”
The lawsuit alleges that the restriction on weddings violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution, and it seeks an order enjoining this unlawful restriction on religious freedom.