United StatesMichigan

Couple sues Whitmer, Nessel over 100-person wedding restrictions

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer encourages Michiganders to mask up on July 15 to prevent the state’s return to phase three.

(The Center Square) – A blocked wedding led to a federal lawsuit against state and local officials by a couple who argues the First Amendment protects marriages from local restrictions such as social gatherings limits.

David Vansolkema and Kiley Stuller planned to get married on July 24 at the Baker Events’ property in Holland, Michigan.

The couple filed a civil rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan after the Ottawa County Department of Public Health on July 2 gave Baker Events a “cease and desist order” from holding weddings.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Executive Order 2020-110 limits outdoor social gatherings to 100 people.

But the order exempts places of religious worship from penalties, stating that “nothing in this order shall be taken to abridge protections guaranteed by the state or federal constitution under these emergency circumstances.”

The American Freedom Law Center (AFLC) announced the lawsuit Monday, filed Friday on behalf of Baker Events, LLC, and its manager Jay Carll, whom the lawsuit says dedicated his property for religious worship.

Baker Events questioned why restaurants can operate at 50 percent capacity (the venue contracts with a catering company), but weddings aren’t permitted at half capacity, which would allow 190 and 120 people in the venue’s separate spaces.

The lawsuit argues that weddings are religious worship and are exempt from the 100-person limit.

Ottawa County Counsel Douglas W. Van Essen disagreed, according to the lawsuit:

“A wedding reception is NOT a religious worship activity; it is a social gathering,” Van Essen wrote. “A wedding ceremony – even if a minister is involved, is not a religious worship service as those terms are used by the Governor…”

Baker Events contends it enacted strict health and safety measures including installing air purifiers, multiple sanitation stations, social distancing and mask-wearing rules that adhered to guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The lawsuit argues that Whitmer has allowed and participated in protests attended by more than 100 people under First Amendment protections, which they allege also shields their events.

“Three days after she issued EO 2020-110, Defendant Whitmer promoted and even participated in an outdoor social gathering that far exceeded 100 persons,” the 20-page suit states.

“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.’”

Whitmer’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Courtney Covington, a spokesperson for Attorney General Dana Nessel, said they don’t comment on pending litigation.

The venue has 134 weddings booked through the rest of the year, the lawsuit says, and the continued restrictions will cause “serious harm,” noting that 24 weddings have already been canceled and 51 postponed.

The lawsuit alleges the wedding restriction violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

“This tyranny has gone so far now that the Governor does not consider a wedding ceremony to be religious worship,” AFLC Co-Founder and Senior Counsel Robert Muise said in a statement.

“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.’”

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