The COVID-19 pandemic has presented numerous and varied challenges to our country. Of course, maintaining public health and safety and ensuring that our hospitals and clinics can provide suitable care for the ill while protecting their staff has been a major challenge. On top of that, citizens across Oklahoma and the United States have been struggling to care for themselves and their families amidst lockdowns and soaring unemployment.
There’s a delicate balance between maintaining the safety of citizens and restricting rights unnecessarily. The United States founders upheld the ideals of personal freedom, but over the past couple of months, we’ve watched our leaders enact restrictions that almost seem like an attempt to one-up each other. Lee Coats Law had it right when they said, “It has become a race to the bottom with perceivably little to no caution of going too far.”
In many cases, the ordinances and laws being enacted don’t seem to serve the goal of slowing or stopping the spread of the virus. Here’s our assessment of some of the high-profile cases filed across Oklahoma.
City of Vinita: Ordinance 3725
Lee Coats Law spearheaded a suit against the City of Vinita challenging Ordinance 3725, which was enacted on April 7. The ordinance required citizens to stay home at all times, except when going to work or for “essential errands,” such as purchasing groceries, medication, gasoline, or seeing a physician. The ordinance classified violations as misdemeanor crimes punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine of up to $500.
The language of the ordinance reached far beyond what was necessary to stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus. It banned activities such as taking a drive in your own vehicle without coming into contact with anyone else unless you could prove that it was to perform an “essential errand.” The ordinance also arbitrarily banned citizens from taking a socially distanced walk between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., taking groceries to a loved one or checking on them, even if citizens did not enter the home.
The lawsuit sought an injunction to prohibit the city from enacting this ordinance. Prior to the scheduled hearing, the City rescinded the ordinance rather than face near certain defeat in court. As of April 23, the City of Vinita has adopted the Open Up and Recover Safely plan announced by Governor Stitt.
City of Guthrie: Ordinance 3330
On April 22, Redbud Law, alongside Frank Urbanic, filed a suit against the City of Guthrie alleging that Ordinance 3330, which was adopted April 4, unfairly restricted the rights of residents because it imposed restrictions more stringent than the State of Oklahoma with the addition of criminal penalties. Like other cities, Guthrie sought to restrict citizen’s travel to “essential activities” only.
Plaintiffs were not allowed to gather in groups of 10 or more to worship or assemble for any reason and were forced to acquire, at their own expense, a cloth face covering that would meet the approval of the City of Guthrie. Plaintiff’s argued that “a pandemic does not give local governments a blank check to write whatever laws they want. The Constitution secures fundamental rights regardless of the situation.” The suit also alleged that the City overstepped through unlawful regulation of interstate commerce, among many other things, that caused the plaintiffs irreparable injury.
On April 30, Judge Scott Palk granted the Defendant’s Motion to Dismiss because none of the Plaintiffs had actually been arrested or issued a ticket without hearing the merits of the case. However, the Plaintiff’s found success because, on April 20, the City voted to rescind Ordinance 3330 in favor of Ordinance 3331, which got rid of most of the issues Plaintiffs raised in the lawsuit. The new Ordinance did not include the unconstitutional sections restricting travel. It removed the restriction on gatherings of more than 10, simply stating that group size was restricted on public property only. The City has since allowed Ordinance 3331 to lapse.
City of Norman: Healthier at Home
The City of Norman and Mayor Breea Clark instituted a “Healthier at Home” initiative that reopened the city in phases. The plan did not align with the statewide opening that began on May 1. As a result, three salon owners brought a suit against Clark and the City, arguing that personal care businesses, such as salons, spas, and massage services should be able to open in Phase 1A, rather than 1B as initially mandated.
On May 4, Cleveland County District Judge Thad Balkman issued a preliminary injunction to halt the Healthier at Home order, finding that the prohibition against personal care businesses was “not rational,” and that it would cause plaintiffs “irreparable harm.” In response to the injunction, Mayor Clark and the City updated the ordinance to allow personal care businesses to reopen during Phase 1A.
At this time, the City of Norman has removed the case to federal court to argue its right to enact ordinances that are more restrictive than state measures, especially during public health crises. On its face, this move by the City seems to be nothing more than a waste of taxpayer money as it has little chance of being allowed to proceed in federal court.
Personal care business owners were not alone in being singled out by the Healthier at Home plan. Houses of worship were also initially restricted as well. However, under pressure from the Oklahoma Attorney General and the US Attorney for the Western District of Oklahoma, Mayor Clark amended the order to allow churches to reopen a week earlier than she’d initially planned.
Times of crisis do not justify governmental overreach
Even in a public health crisis, the government does not, and should not, have the power to take away citizen’s fundamental rights. If you feel that local or state governments have infringed upon your rights, get in touch with us today.