On April 4, eight people were arrested by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department for sidewalk counseling and praying in front of an abortion facility. Although most of the pro-life advocates did not come as a group and were spaced more than six feet apart, officers allege they were violating the North Carolina governor’s stay at home order as well as that of Mecklenburg County by participating in a gathering of more than ten people.
The order allows for outdoor activity with social distancing and for volunteering with charitable and social services. This group was doing both of these things, and have thus sued the city over the arrests.
David Benham is the founder of Cities4Life, a pro-life organization. David and his twin brother Jason are former professional baseball players and the founders of Benham Real-estate Group. They are well known for being fired from HGTV for their stances on gay marriage and abortion.
The Benhams have deep ties to the pro-life movement. Their father, Flip Benham, is infamous for converting Norma McCorvey, who was Jane Roe in Roe v. Wade, to Christianity and to the pro-life movement. Flip Benham was also present at the clinic and arrested.
The event is gaining national attention. On Saturday Texas Sen. Ted Cruz posted a video on Twitter of David Benham’s arrest.
Killing Babies Essential, Saving Them Not
In a video posted Sunday evening with his son Bailey Benham, who also got arrested, David Benham said the stay-at-home orders exempt federally recognized public charities that are providing essential services. He said his ministry provides baby shower gifts, partners with pregnancy resource centers to do mobile sonograms, and works with the Department of Social Services for fostering and adoption. “If abortion clinics are essential service, then the pro-life ministry is also an essential service,” he said.
According to a video posted by Cities4Life Director Daniel Parks, soon after he arrived at the abortion facility that morning, police told him that if more than ten people showed up they would be asked to leave, even if those people were not connected to Cities4Life.
Soon after 9 a.m., more people arrived to pray in front of the clinic. Many were connected to a different pro-life organization called Love Life. This ministry posted this announcement to their website.
Jim Quick, a volunteer with Love Life, said the group specifically did not sanction a mass gathering and informed volunteers that if they came to the facility it would be as individuals and not as representatives of Love Life. They have had a notice on their website cancelling group ministry at clinics for the past two weeks, he said.
Dispute Over Number of People Present
Eighteen-year-old Konur Papageorgiou was arrested when he refused to stop praying in front of the abortion facility on Saturday. When he arrived at 9 a.m., there were already at least a dozen police cars parked across the street from the clinic, he told me in a phone call. Papageorgiou said it seemed like the officers were picking and choosing who to cite and arrest at random.
Quick said the Latrobe abortion facility sits on a tear drop-shaped loop about a mile and a half long. Papageorgiou said when he was first cited there were only eight to nine other people within view. This included four to five people further down the street, around a corner. He said as he was being driven away in a police car he saw another four to five people even further down the loop.
Frank Moore, who was praying outside of the clinic on Saturday, said he never counted more than 20 people present total and no more than ten in front of the actual clinic. He said when he was approached by officers and told to leave he was the only one on his side of the sidewalk.
Moore said he didn’t believe he was violating social distancing guidelines, as he was wearing a mask and merely walking outside on public property by himself. Iris Robinson, who was also there praying, said she never counted more than ten people in front of the clinic though the amount of officers was “overkill.”
“There were about just as many police officers as there were of us,” Papageorgious said. “I thought it was ironic because we were all spread out but when they arrested and cited us they brought us all into one big group.”
Numerous videos of the morning show that protestors were far more than six feet apart. In an email David Benham said:
When I arrived there were three sidewalk counselors and about 15 officers. I was arrested while standing by myself across the street. By the time I was taken away in the police car there were other individuals that had arrived, but there [were] no gatherings [taking] place and there [were] hundreds of feet of social distance from what I saw.
What the Police Say
According to the mayor’s office and CMPD’s Office of Public Affairs, the officers were acting based on what County Attorney Tyrone Wade wrote:
Under the right circumstances, a government can place reasonable restrictions on constitutional rights. Under these circumstances, while the COVID-19 state of emergency and public health declarations are in place to prevent or reduce the further spread of the virus, it is reasonable to limit a person’s freedom of movement to a gathering of no more than ten people and a requirement that each person remains at least six feet apart in order to protect the public.
I called Wade’s office and left two voicemails, but my calls were not returned. The County Attorney’s Office also did not immediately respond for comment. When asked how the CMPD and county attorney’s office determined how to define a gathering, CMPD did not answer.
Officer Blake Page provided this account of events on behalf of the CMPD Public Affairs Office:
This weekend, CMPD officers were assigned to the women’s clinic on Latrobe Drive. The CMPD has traditionally monitored demonstrations at the clinic for several years to ensure the safety of patients, clinic staff and demonstrators. On Saturday, officers observed approximately fifty protesters congregating outside of the clinic. The gathering was determined to be a violation of mass gatherings in the North Carolina Stay at Home Order.
Those who exceeded the ten person limit outlined in the order, were asked to leave. They refused and were subsequently issued citations for that in-person refusal to comply. Several of the individuals cited chose to remain and were arrested for their refusal to disperse.
As far as I know, no one exercising in parks that Saturday was cited for coming to the same place as dozens of others and for the same purpose. Nor were the hundreds of people who visited Home Depot on Saturday cited for coming to the same place for the same purpose.
Both this article and reporting from WBTV shows crowded parks around Charlotte on Saturday. Police can be seen patrolling, but not breaking up any of the crowds. This demonstrates the double standard CMPD is using to enforce stay at home orders. If CMPD applied the governor’s orders without bias and equally, as they claimed to do with the pro-lifers near the abortion facility, they would be citing and arresting hundreds of people in parks and parking lots across the state.
‘Selective Enforcement and Viewpoint Discrimination’
Benham was held in custody for four hours and released without bail. His court date is June 2, and he is being represented by attorneys from the civil-rights legal nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, he said in an email.
“It was selective enforcement, it was viewpoint discrimination,” Benham stated.
In a Facebook live video taken outside of the abortion clinic Saturday morning Cities4Life Volunteer Coordinator Vicky Kaseorg said that even though she and the rest of the group were carefully observing all of the distancing requirements from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, members of the Love Life ministry and the Founder of Cities4Life were arrested.
County Health Director Gibbie Harris stated on Twitter that a local volleyball game violated the county’s stay at home order because the game requires sharing equipment. There is no evidence that police broke up the game. Local radio host Mark Garrison observed that pro-life advocates in front of the Latrobe abortion facility were maintaining social distance requirement when he visited the clinic to conduct interviews on the last two Saturdays, he reported on WBT.
In a livestream Facebook video, Isaiah Feliciano Burner, a local pastor and member of Love Life, filmed all eight arrests and the handing out of several citations, including his own. Burner’s video shows himself and others going out of their way to maintain social distancing guidelines.
Those who received citations were said to be in Violation of Emergency Prohibitions and Restrictions under NCGS 14-288.20A(2). “After an initial request for compliance, 12 people who were in violation refused to leave” and were cited under state law for violation of emergency prohibitions and restrictions, according to CMPD news release.
Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles could not be reached for comment. I contacted her Joint Information Center and spokesperson numerous times via phone and email and was never given a statement. Gov. Roy Cooper could also not be reached for comment. I contacted his deputy chief of staff via email and did not hear back.
Disclosure: I interned with Cities4Life in summer 2011.