Two Twin Cities churches and several business owners are calling on Gov. Tim Walz to end what they call an unconstitutional and draconian scheme to close them during the pandemic, saying the partial shutdown has violated their constitutional rights.
In a federal lawsuit filed in Minnesota on Wednesday, the group alleges Walz’s executive orders during the pandemic unfairly pick “winners and losers” by closing some businesses, schools and places of worship, while allowing big-box stores and others to remain open.
“Worshipers across Minnesota have been prohibited from assembling to celebrate Easter and the Passover, while liquor stores have remained open,” says the lawsuit. “Target, Walmart, Walgreens, and CVS are open, while local Hallmark stores are closed. Golf courses and bait shops are open, but indoor amusement facilities are shut. Nobody can legally get a haircut, but dogs may now be groomed. Businesses in Minnesota have been forced to carry rent obligations, loan payments, and tax obligations without relief and without income. Those businesses’ landlords, in turn, have not been able to collect rent from tenants who cannot afford to pay it.”
The lawsuit is filed by the Upper Midwest Law Center, a newly formed law firm with a stated “pro-freedom” mission to fight for limited government. The plaintiffs include Northland Baptist Church of St. Paul and Living Word Christian Center, a Brooklyn Park megachurch that’s been investigated by the IRS, along with a mini-golf facility, card shop and hair salon business, all of which are now shuttered. The lawsuit names Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and several Twin Cities county attorneys as defendants.
This week, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected hearing a similar case in Pittsburgh in which a Republican statehouse candidate and several local businesses sued the governor over the shutdown there.
Over the past two months, as the COVID-19 pandemic has spread through Minnesota, Walz has issued a series of executive orders to slow the infection rate. Among them was a stay-at-home order beginning March 27, which closed businesses deemed “nonessential.” Walz said the order, which has been extended to May 18, was a necessary extreme measure that could save tens of thousands of lives. The economic impacts of the closures have driven up unemployment rates and inspired protests calling for the governor to reopen the state.
“The virus has forced the state to take drastic action to keep Minnesotans safe, but it’s action that is within the governor’s authority,” said Walz spokesman Teddy Tschann in a statement Thursday responding to the lawsuit. “It is also in line with federal guidance and similar to what many other states are doing. All of the Governor’s actions have been grounded in the need to protect the health and safety of Minnesotans, and he will continue to work to find ways to get Minnesotans back to work and to a place where they can safely gather in large groups.”
The lawsuit states that Walz’s order, and prosecution of those who violate it, has “intimidated Plaintiffs into not exercising their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights for fear of criminal prosecution.”
It alleges the order violates their right to free speech and exercise of religion, and amounts to deprivation of liberty.