NC county to pay $20K after arresting David Benham, pro-life demonstrators outside abortion clinic
A North Carolina county has agreed to pay $20,000 in attorney fees following the arrest of David Benham and other pro-life demonstrators outside of an abortion facility in 2020 for allegedly violating COVID-19 regulations.
The conservative legal advocacy group Alliance Defending Freedom announced the settlement between Benham, Cities4Life and Global Impact Ministries with Mecklenburg County last Thursday.
"We commend Mecklenburg County officials for finally agreeing to respect the free speech rights of Mr. Benham and the other pro-life citizens and for acknowledging their freedom to pray and speak in the public square, and we invite the city of Charlotte to follow suit," ADF Senior Counsel Denise Harle, director of the ADF Center for Life, said in a statement.
ADF filed the lawsuit against the city of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County in April 2020 in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of North Carolina. Benham — president of the charity Cities4Life — Global Impact Ministries, Love Life and Love Life Charlotte were listed as plaintiffs.
The lawsuit stems from the law enforcement actions taken against Benham and several other pro-life advocates on April 4, 2020, as they were gathered for First Amendment exercises on the sidewalk outside A Preferred Women's Health abortion facility in Charlotte. The group offered free resources to abortion-minded women entering and exiting the facility, and they also prayed outside of the clinic.
According to the settlement agreement, the county agreed that the plaintiffs' advocacy on public sidewalks and streets is governed by First Amendment free speech law, citing two U.S. Supreme Court cases.
The settlement also states that future proclamations or emergency regulations issued by the county would make exceptions for outdoor gatherings done for the purpose of religious or spiritual worship or where participants are engaging in actions protected by the First Amendment. This exception also comes with the condition that those engaging in these actions also abide by social distancing measures.
On top of paying $20,000 in attorney fees, the defendant also dismissed the charges. Benham's lawsuit against the city of Charlotte is still ongoing, according to the ADF.
"The government can protect public health and safety and still respect the constitutionally guaranteed freedoms Americans have," Harle said. "From the beginning, this case has been about the government silencing people because it didn't like their point of view. People of faith can't be singled out for their religious beliefs or because their form of speech happens to be prayer or pro-life counseling.
The lawsuit claims the pro-life activists were arrested or cited while "exercising their First Amendment rights to speech and religious exercise in the service of others."
The suit maintained that a proclamation issued by the Mecklenburg County Board of Commissioners and the Mayor of the City of Charlotte prohibiting gatherings of more than 10 people did not apply to the activities of Benham and the other pro-life groups.
"While the abortion clinic began filling up with clients and numerous people roamed the parks and sidewalks for recreation and exercise, government officials targeted the selfless individuals from Cities4Life and Love Life, who were praying on the sidewalk, maintaining a safe distance from one another and others, and helping women interested in the important charitable services they offered," the lawsuit reads.
Mecklenburg County did not immediately respond to The Christian Post's request for comment.
As CP reported in April 2020, Benham maintained that he and the group had taken precautions when counseling women and praying outside the abortion facility. On April 4, 2020, the Benham Brothers' Twitter account shared a video of police arresting the Christian speaker outside the abortion clinic.
"David maintained social distancing while exercising all necessary precautions in light of COVID-19," the Benham Brothers tweeted the following day. "This video has the full story. Thank you for your continued support as we fight for life!"
Benham and his twin brother, Jason Benham, are real estate entrepreneurs and public speakers known for their conservative Christian views. They became well-known among Christian conservatives in 2014 after Home & Garden Television (HGTV) announced that it would not move forward with their home-flipping reality show, reportedly due to the brothers' views on same-sex marriage and abortion.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also commented on the arrest, writing on Twitter that it was "unconstitutional."
"My friend David Benham was unconstitutionally arrested today in NC for peacefully providing pregnancy counseling outside an abortion clinic," he wrote on Twitter. "If NC deems abortion 'essential,' then pregnancy care services are as well. This is WRONG; Governor [Roy] Cooper should be ashamed."
According to a report from WBTV, police arrived to break up a gathering of 50 people outside of the Charlotte abortion clinic, arresting eight people who allegedly refused to leave. Twelve people who initially refused to leave later did so after the police issued them citations.
All eight of the people arrested were charged with violating Emergency Prohibitions and Restrictions under NCGS 14-288.20A(2), according to the report.
Samantha Kamman is a reporter for The Christian Post. She can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter: @Samantha_Kamman