OKLAHOMA CITY – A federal lawsuit against the City of Guthrie, its mayor, city council and police chief, alleging that municipal measures enacted in response to the global spread of the coronavirus violated the constitutional rights of 10 individuals, lasted just eight days.
Federal Judge Scott Palk in Oklahoma’s U.S. Western District Court dismissed the case April 30.
“The City of Guthrie is very pleased with the Court’s ruling,” Tulsa attorney Jason McVicker of the McAfee & Taft law firm said Thursday. “We hope everyone continues to stay safe during this pandemic.”
The plaintiffs included Guthrie residents Angela F. Miller, Donna J. Wilson, Daniel L. Navejas, Heather E. Brown, Bobby J. Lockhart, Audra M. Lockhart, and Tammie D. Hulsey. Plaintiffs Jackie A. Whitley, Vicki L. Jones and James P. Nunamaker told the court they “visit and/or conduct business in” Guthrie.
Their attorney, Frank Urbanic of Oklahoma City, declined to comment about the case.
The lawsuit arose from a “State of Emergency Declaration” that Guthrie Mayor Steven J. Gentling issued March 16, effective through May 11 “unless terminated or renewed”, and from Ordinance #3330 adopted by the City Council on April 6.
The ordinance directed Guthrie citizens to “shelter in place” and to wear “cloth face coverings”; closed city properties and facilities; suspended organized gatherings of 10 or more people on public or private property, including churches; closed hair and nail salons, barber shops, spas, tattoo parlors, public fitness and entertainment venues, and other businesses except those deemed to be “essential”; stressed ‘social distancing’ of at least 6 feet between individuals; etc.
Any violation of “any stipulation or provisions” of the ordinance could result in a fine of $100 to $500 plus costs and fees, and bond for any offense was set at $200 plus all costs and fees, the ordinance decreed.
Guthrie Ordinance Violated Constitution, 10 Plaintiffs Alleged
The plaintiffs alleged that Ordinance #3330 prohibited their “free exercise” of religion by infringing upon the “right of the people peaceably to assemble”; violated the Commerce Clause (Article 1, Section 8, Clause 3) of the United States Constitution; and contained language that was “imprecise, ambiguous, and vague” and therefore would “inevitably result in selective and arbitrary enforcement” in violation of the Due Process and the Equal Protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
The “social distancing guidelines” of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “are appropriate to limit the spread of COVID-19,” the plaintiffs conceded. However, “Imposing more restrictive requirements that target churches is not the least-restrictive means of achieving” the city’s public safety goal.
On the morning of April 27, hours before the initial court hearing on the lawsuit was scheduled, the Guthrie City Council held a special meeting and approved Ordinance #3331, which rescinded the mandatory measures imposed
Municipal official instead “strongly recommend” that Guthrie citizens and businesses “continue to follow CDC recommendations” on social distancing, wash hands with soap and water, avoid touching one’s face, disinfect frequently used items and surfaces as much as possible, “consider” using face coverings while in public and when using mass transit, stay at home as much as possible, and contact a doctor if you feel sick.
The mayor’s emergency proclamation remains in effect until 12:01 a.m. May 12.
In their lawsuit the plaintiffs requested a temporary restraining order and/or a preliminary injunction. Because the city council rescinded the ordinance that was at the heart of the litigation, the court hearing on the matter was rescheduled to April 29.
In defense of city officials, McVicker described the plaintiffs as “a group of citizens and non-citizens” of Guthrie who “do not like” the community’s COVID-19 “safety ordinance.” They “repeatedly complain that the ordinance is unfair” and they “warn of a parade of hypothetical horribles that may occur in the future if the ordinance is allowed to stand.”
Plaintiffs Lacked Legal Standing, Federal Judge Rules
Judge Palk tossed out the case on April 30 because the plaintiffs lacked legal standing to bring the lawsuit.
To establish “standing,” a plaintiff must show that he/she has suffered “an injury in fact,” the judge wrote in his decision. Only one of the plaintiffs “verified the allegations of the complaint.”
The litigants’ complaint contains “only vague and conclusory allegations” about any injury, Palk said. “They are the type of allegations to be ignored by the court in determining whether plausibility has been established.”
For example, the plaintiffs’ assertion that their constitutional right to free exercise of religion was violated doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, the judge indicated.
“[W]holly absent from their allegations are facts to show whether they even hold religious beliefs,” whether those alleged religious beliefs require church attendance, whether they attend church as part of their religious practices, where they attend church and how often church services occur.
“Moreover, there are no allegations that any plaintiff ever attempted to attend church since the enactment of Ordinance 3330,” the jurist wrote.
Further, in alleging that they were denied the “ability to assemble via a church service (drive-in or otherwise),” the plaintiffs failed to offer any facts “to demonstrate any concrete or particularized injury,” Palk wrote.
Plaintiffs Failed To Offer Proof Of Actual Harm
As for their complaint about having to wear a face mask when in public, the plaintiffs’ allegations “fail to demonstrate any actions taken by any of them giving rise to actual injury,” the judge noted. The complainants “do not allege any past conduct in which they faced consequences for not wearing a face mask,” nor did they provide any facts “demonstrating future harm through threat of enforcement of the ordinance or otherwise.”
The allegation that Ordinance #3330 violates the Commerce Clause is “speculative and conclusory,” the judge said.
The three non-resident plaintiffs did not provide “any factual allegations about why they ‘visit’ Guthrie, what business they conduct in Guthrie, how that business has been curtailed by the ordinance, what enforcement actions they have faced or may face as a result of such business, or any other facts to demonstrate injury resulting to them as a result of the ordinance.”
The plaintiffs also alleged that Ordinance #3330 violated provisions of the Oklahoma Constitution and statutory law, particularly a section that spells out the authority of a municipal governing body to enact ordinances. “Plaintiffs allege no facts demonstrating they have been subjected to enforcement of the ordinance, threatened or otherwise,” Palk wrote.
“In sum,” the judge concluded in dismissing their petition, the plaintiffs “have not adequately alleged a plausible claim of injury sufficient to confer standing as to any of their federal causes of action.”
Similar Case Filed in Kansas
A federal judge in Kansas indicated he thinks that state is violating religious freedom and free speech rights with a coronavirus-inspired 10-person limit on in-person attendance at religious services or activities; the jurist blocked its enforcement against two Baptist churches that sued over it.
The temporary restraining order issued April 18 by U.S. District Judge John Broomes in Wichita prevents the enforcement of an order issued by Gov. Laura Kelly against a church in Dodge City and one in Junction City. The judge’s decision remains in effect until May 16.
Broomes barred enforcement of restrictions on the number of attendees at religious gatherings if the churches “comply with ‘social distancing’ and other safety protocols.”