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Franklin County wedding venue files lawsuit over COVID-19 restrictions

Franklin County wedding venue files lawsuit over COVID-19 restrictions

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A Franklin County estate that hosts outdoor weddings is contesting part of Gov. Ralph Northam’s restrictions meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Belle Garden Estate stands to lose business in the upcoming spring wedding season due to a state-imposed limit on the number of people at its gatherings, the estate maintains in a lawsuit filed in Roanoke’s federal court.

A hearing has been scheduled for March 24, at which time Judge Thomas Cullen will be asked to issue a preliminary injunction that would invalidate a section of Northam’s executive order that prohibits outdoor gatherings of more than 25 people in some, but not all, settings.

“Anxious brides trying to have a wedding planned months in advance are being told they cannot have their wedding,” legal documents state in arguing that the restriction violates the constitutional rights of both participants and their hosts.

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 a year ago, there have been many similar lawsuits — but few victories.

Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s Law School, said he would guess that thousands of cases have been filed across the U.S., and at least 50 in Virginia. “But very few have reached the highest courts in the state or federal system,” he said.

“I think that plaintiffs making claims like this one have lost most of the cases, mainly because courts have found that the public health emergency created by the pandemic is more important” than legal protections cited in the lawsuits, he said.

In its lawsuit against Northam, Belle Garden Estate is challenging part of his executive order that applies to “parties, celebrations, or other social events,” limiting the number of people to 10 for indoor events and 25 outdoors.

But there are many exceptions. Groups of people that exceed the limit are not considered an affected gathering if they are at work, in an educational setting, or at a park or retail business. Religious services are also exempted, as long as participants follow guidelines such as social distancing and mask wearing.

Outdoor weddings were excluded, “intentionally or unintentionally,” from a group of entertainment and amusement businesses that are allowed to have crowds of up to 30% of their occupancy, or if applicable up to 1,000 people, the lawsuit states.

That means a wide variety of activities — carnivals, horse races, concerts, sporting events and even an Easter egg hunt at a Rotary Club — are given more latitude than weddings, according to the lawsuit.

Furthermore, the exception for church activities means that businesses such as Belle Garden would be required to urge clients to have religious-affiliated weddings in order to exceed the 25-person limit. “This converts Plaintiff from a secular business to a quasi-arm of religious interests,” the lawsuit states.

Northam’s order is alleged to violate the First Amendment right of free assembly and the 14th Amendment right of equal protection under the law.

A spokeswoman for Northam declined to comment on pending litigation.

In general, “Governor Northam has taken a measured and data-driven approach throughout this public health crisis, and that’s what he’ll continue to do,” Alena Yarmosky wrote in an email.

Efforts to reach Belle Garden Estate and its attorney, Timothy Anderson of Virginia Beach, were unsuccessful Wednesday.

Anderson has been involved in a number of high-profile and politically charged cases. He represents an investigator at the Office of the State Inspector General who recently filed a whistleblower lawsuit related to a controversy involving the Virginia Parole Board, and Sen. Amenda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who is challenging her censure for violating Senate rules.

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