A federal judge has denied a legal challenge by a group that claimed its inability to gather for a protest of Gov. Tim Walz's pause on youth sports violated its First Amendment rights.

The group, with a Facebook membership of 23,000, filed a lawsuit on Dec. 10 in U.S. District Court challenging Walz's order to pause youth sports to help control the spread of COVID-19.

The group sought to protest the order last month in a rally on the State Capitol grounds but the state denied the request, The order limits social gatherings in an attempt to curb virus transmission.

Judge John Tunheim ruled Friday that Let Them Play MN had failed to prove its claims.

Tunheim wrote that the state's prohibition of social gatherings "has nothing to do with any message that might be conveyed at such gatherings. Rather, the prohibition has the singular intent of curbing the spread of COVID-19.''

He said the group has "ample alternative channels'' for sharing its message, including online, via the media and "drive-through protests as well.''

Tunheim called the state's restrictions on social gathering "another grim result of the rapid spread'' of the virus.

"No one is in favor of limiting cherished constitutional rights, nor should they be. But the state's measured response, focused directly on the likely causes of the recent surge, satisfies judicial scrutiny,'' he wrote.

Walz has since extended the youth sports pause until Jan. 4, when practices can resume at the high school and youth levels. No dates have been indicated for when games and competitions will be allowed.

Let Them Play MN has indicated it will appeal Tunheim's ruling to the U.S. 8th Circuit Court of Appeals. Minneapolis attorney Sam Diehl, who is representing the group, said he expected the appeal to be filed Monday evening.

"Minnesota and Minnesota's kids deserve better," said Dawn Gillman, the group's organizer.