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Rulings offer roadmap for challenges to pandemic orders

Local governments in the St. Louis area to date have emerged the winners of early battles to defend their stay-at-home orders amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rulings in those cases — one challenges an order’s limits on the number of people who can take part in religious activities, and the other, closures of non-essential businesses — now offer a roadmap for other pending and future lawsuits challenging similar orders across the state.

On May 8, U.S. District Judge Stephen R. Clark denied a request from two St. Louis-area businesses that sought a temporary restraining order to lift orders from the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County requiring them to remain closed during the pandemic.

The businesses, SH3 Health Consulting LLC, which runs an Anytime Fitness gym in Manchester, and Elder’s Antiques of St. Louis, argued that the local officials lack the authority to enter the orders and that the orders violate their Constitutional rights.

Clark said it’s not for the courts to decide the most effective measures for protecting the public. That is the role of the executive branch, he said.

“The court’s power is limited to asking whether the governing authorities have taken action in ‘an arbitrary, unreasonable manner’ or through ‘arbitrary and oppressive regulations,’” he said, quoting the 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case Jacobson v. Massachusetts, which held that states could enforce mandatory vaccination laws.

Two recent cases — one in Texas, one in Arkansas — upholding restrictions on abortions during the pandemic also informed his ruling, he said.

Clark ruled that the plaintiffs did not meet their burden for a temporary restraining order and denied their motion.

Bevis Schock, who represented the plaintiffs, said Clark still has a portion of the case before him: The judge has not yet addressed the defendants’ dismissal, stay and abstention arguments, which he planned to do in a separate order.

Clark “has not seen the case as I have seen it” in regard to the TRO, Schock said, but he said respects the judge’s opinion.

Schock also said he doesn’t see a rush to the appeals court, given plans to relax stay-at-home orders in the coming weeks.

“I think what’s going to happen is it’s going to moot out really fast,” he said.

Religious-exercise claims

Another ruling could provide guidance to religious organizations seeking to challenge limits on their gatherings.

In a case brought by St. Louis County residents who say the county’s stay-at-home order violates their constitutional rights to assemble and practice their religion, a federal judge has largely dismissed the case for lack of standing.

On May 11, U.S. District Judge Ronnie White dismissed all but the plaintiffs’ due-process claim.

White said he was unable to discern from their complaint the specific impetus for the closure of their churches and what would enable them to reopen.

The plaintiffs, in responding to the county’s motion to dismiss, argued they are not required to state facts to support their complaint and the court cannot inquire regarding their sincerely held religious beliefs.

White said the response “misses the mark regarding the Court’s standing inquiry,” and he does not question whether they have a sincerely held religious belief.

“Rather, the Court questions the proximate cause of the churches’ closings and whether it has the ability to remedy Plaintiffs’ alleged injury,” White said.

“Plaintiffs’ Complaint does not provide sufficient factual allegations related to their religious practices, beliefs, or situations for the Court to discern the cause of Plaintiffs’ churches closing,” he said.

The plaintiffs voluntarily dismissed their remaining claim and have since filed an appeal of White’s ruling.

Michael Quinlan represented the plaintiffs in the case. He did not respond to a request for comment.

Neal Perryman of Lewis Rice also represented the county in both suits. He said the county is pleased with the rulings, but he declined to comment further because the suits are ongoing.

Second wave

Already, a second wave of litigation on similar orders has emerged.

Abundant Life Baptist Church in Lee’s Summit filed suit May 7 against Jackson County officials in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri, challenging the county’s phased reopening plan for its cap on attendance at religious gatherings.

Tiger Tots, a child-care facility in Columbia, also sued Stephanie Browning, Boone County’s director of Public Health and Human Services May 11 in Boone County Circuit Court. The business claims the county’s order exceeds Browning’s authority.

St. Louis County also is using Clark’s ruling to bolster its position in an enforcement action against House of Pain Gym Services LLC, which own two gyms in St. Louis County and has continued to operate in defiance of the county’s stay-at-home order.

The county was set to argue its motion for a TRO at a hearing May 13, but at the hearing’s outset, House of Pain attorney Chris McDonough announced that he’d just filed a motion for a new judge. The hearing was rescheduled for May 15 before a new judge. TRO hearings were also scheduled on that day for the Tiger Tots and Abundant Life cases.

The cases are SH3 Health Consulting LLC et al. v. Page et al., 4:20-cv-00605; Hawse et al. v. Page et al., 4:20-cv-00588; Tiger Tots et al. v. Browning, 20BA-CV01607; Abundant Life Baptist Church v. Jackson County et al., 4:20-cv-00367; and St. Louis County v. House of Pain Gym Services LLC, 20SL-CC02430.

Coronavirus crisis

This item is part of Missouri Lawyers Media's free coverage of how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the legal community.

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