Abortion protesters sue city of Charlotte over COVID-19 social distancing arrests

In this Charlotte Observer file photo from 2017, volunteers with the group, Cities4Life,...
In this Charlotte Observer file photo from 2017, volunteers with the group, Cities4Life, demonstrate outside the A Preferred Women’s Health Center of Charlotte on Latrobe Drive. David Benham, the group’s leader, sued the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County on Saturday, April 18, 2020, over what he called the group’s “targeted,” wrongful arrests over North Carolina’s COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings.(DAVIE HINSHAW CHARLOTTE OBSERVER FILE PHOTO)
Published: Apr. 19, 2020 at 10:04 AM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Charlotte Observer) - The leader of a group of Charlotte abortion protesters sued the city and Mecklenburg County on Saturday over what he called the group’s “targeted,” wrongful arrests over North Carolina’s COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings.

In his lawsuit filed in federal court in Charlotte, David Benham said the group complied with COVID-19 social distancing measures during its April 4 protest outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center on Latrobe Drive.

Benham said police violated the protesters’ First Amendment rights to speech and religious exercise, according to the lawsuit.

A city spokesman declined comment about the lawsuit, saying the city attorney’s office likely has not seen the filing.

Police charged eight protesters April 4 with violating North Carolina’s COVID-19-related ban on mass gatherings, The Charlotte Observer previously reported.

The arrests went national that night when U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas criticized Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police.

“This is an unconstitutional arrest,” Cruz, a runner-up for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2016 election, tweeted. “@BenhamBrothers exercising core First Amendment rights. PEACEFULLY. In a way fully consistent w/ public safety. Because elected Dems are pro-abortion, they are abusing their power – in a one-sided way – to silence pregnancy counselors.”

About 50 protesters had gathered outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center, police said in a news release the day of the arrests. The center has been the scene of numerous abortion protests over the years.

That size crowd violates the mass gatherings provision in the state’s stay-at-home order, police said, so officers asked everyone to leave, the Observer reported.

“After an initial request for compliance, 12 people who were in violation refused to leave” and were cited under state law for violation of emergency prohibitions and restrictions, according to the police news release.

After police issued the citations, eight of the protesters still refused to leave and were arrested, including Benham.

Several days before the arrests, Calla Hales, executive director of the clinic, told the Observer in an interview that protesters continued to show up despite the COVID-19 government restrictions on the size of gatherings

Calling it “a public health nightmare,” Hales said the protesters did not follow social distancing during previous protests. The protesters failed to wear gloves or masks when approaching patients, she said.

According to his lawsuit, Benham said the protesters were “mindful of both the risks of COVID-19 and the recent state and local orders,” and they “adhered to applicable regulations and guidance.”

That included maintaining social distancing by standing at least six feet apart and having hand sanitizer available.

“In fact, they even used sidewalk chalk to mark and maintain appropriate distances between individuals,” Benham said in the lawsuit.

Benham identifies himself in the lawsuit as president and chairman of Cities4Life, another plaintiff in the lawsuit. Global Impact Ministries Inc., a religious and charitable corporation that does business as Love Life and Love Life Charlotte, also joined the lawsuit.

Those arrested April 4 belong to the groups, Benham said in the lawsuit.

Benham also noted in his lawsuit how other members of the public were out in numbers enjoying the outdoors.

“While the abortion clinic began filling up with clients and numerous people roamed the parks and sidewalks for recreation and exercise, government officials targeted the selfless individuals from Cities4Life and Love Life, who were praying on the sidewalk, maintaining a safe distance from one-another and others, and helping women interested in the important charitable services they offered,” Benham said in the lawsuit.

The protesters want a judge to issue a permanent injunction against any government action barring them from gathering outside A Preferred Women’s Health Center.

They also want the judge to award any monetary damages the judge sees fit for their rights being violated.