Andrew Belanger was still in his car at the Scotsdale Women’s Center in Detroit when the abortion business’s security guard warned him the police would probably show up that day. It was the last day of March, and “the security guard told me that [the facility’s director] was itching to have the police out there,” Belanger said. But he took his normal place outside of the building anyway, holding a pro-life sign as he told passersby about the hope and help they could have in Jesus.
“Sure enough, once I started to talk to somebody, the police started to drive by,” Belanger said. Later, officers arrived and issued him a citation for violating Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order.
Belanger took legal action to protect his First Amendment right to minister outside the abortion business and won. Across the country, pro-life advocates have pushed back against stay-at-home orders and other coronavirus-related restrictions with mixed results.
Belanger is a full-time missionary with One Life for Life. He has come to the Scotsdale Women’s Center almost every day since November. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, he had several interactions with police officers who came to check on him when the facility director would call to complain about the protester outside. But the citation for violating the stay-at-home order was his first.
When the officers approached him that Tuesday, Belanger said he had been practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions to respect the state’s concerns about spreading the virus.
“In my talking to people, there was a great distance from me to them,” he said. “I didn’t pass any information out—wasn’t going to do that.”
Since it was a cold day, Belanger even had gloves on.
The American Freedom Law Center filed suit on his behalf and for two other pro-life advocates who joined him later that day.
“We understand the critical need to stop the spread of the coronavirus, as do our clients, who are adhering to the social distancing guidelines,” AFLC co-founder Robert Muise said. “We only seek to prohibit the use of the executive order to criminalize our clients’ peaceful, free speech activity.” He noted the stay-at-home order allowed outdoor activity, “but the police issued Andrew a criminal misdemeanor citation for standing on that same sidewalk and preaching.”
Following the lawsuit, Whitmer, a Democrat, clarified that her executive order did not limit activities protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. On April 13, a U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff signed an order spelling out the protections for Belanger and the other pro-life demonstrators and dismissing the citation against him.
“I am so grateful for how it all transpired,” Belanger said. “My hope would have been, though, that Gov. Whitmer would have deemed abortion nonessential.” Despite a statewide ban on elective medical procedures, the state made a special exception for abortions.
In North Carolina, two lawsuits filed in defense of pro-life demonstrators are still in progress. Last week, Alliance Defending Freedom sued the city of Greensboro on behalf of the Christian ministry Love Life. Greensboro police officers arrested several Love Life members in March for praying together outside an abortion business.
ADF also sued the city of Charlotte for arresting pro-life demonstrators who had gathered at an abortion business but were practicing social distancing. Some news outlets reported that more than 50 pro-life advocates gathered outside of the center, but ADF lawyer Kevin Theriot said those claims exaggerated the number and ignored the function of the pro-life groups represented at the facility that day. The demonstrators stayed 6 feet apart and carried hand sanitizer.
“They even used sidewalk chalk to mark and maintain appropriate distances between individuals,” the lawsuit stated. ADF also argued that stay-at-home orders should not apply to one of the groups represented, Cities4Life, because it offers essential services to pregnant women, including diapers, baby clothes, groceries, and money for rent and prenatal care.