During the COVID-19 pandemic, many people went out of their way to care for their neighbors and protect the most vulnerable among us.
That’s exactly what Pastor Isaiah Burner, a volunteer with the pro-life ministry Love Life, was doing when he went to walk and pray outside an abortion facility in the city of Greensboro, North Carolina. He took extra care to comply with social distancing guidelines and sanitize his hands. As he walked, he prayed for one of the most vulnerable populations in our society—the unborn.
That day, he also spent close to an hour counseling and ministering to a father who was grieving the loss of his child through abortion.
But shortly after that conversation, Pastor Burner was ticketed by the police. Other pro-life Christian witnesses with Love Life were even arrested.
That’s why Alliance Defending Freedom stepped in. Let’s take a closer look at this situation and the resulting lawsuit.
What is Love Life?
Love Life is a faith-based nonprofit that provides a prayerful Christian witness outside abortion facilities. Love Life’s staff and volunteers participate in prayer walks outside the facilities, interceding for the unborn and their mothers through prayer. They are a peaceful presence standing for the truth and providing a voice for the voiceless.
Love Life representatives also stand ready to offer spiritual and emotional counseling to pregnant mothers, and to connect women with the material resources needed to help welcome their babies into the world.
At the end of March 2020, Guilford County issued a “stay-at-home” order in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, putting a stop to gatherings of more than 10 people as well as to “non-essential” activities.
Under the order, there were exceptions for “essential activities,” including all sorts of outdoor activities—like going to a public park, hiking, walking, and even golfing. There were also exceptions for “essential businesses and operations,” including nonprofit organizations providing social services to vulnerable people.
Love Life’s activities fit squarely under those exceptions. So its volunteers continued prayer walks outside of a local abortion facility in the city of Greensboro, which had also been allowed to continue operating in the wake of COVID-19. These volunteers took extra precautions to comply with the order: they had fewer than 10 people gathered at one time, stayed at least six feet apart from one another, and were equipped with hand sanitizer.
Despite this, some of these volunteers were given citations and others were even arrested.
The city claimed the Love Life volunteers were arrested because it had the power to suspend First Amendment activities. It also said they were arrested because they were praying while walking and they traveled from outside the county. But those prohibitions are nowhere to be found in the stay-at-home order.
ADF supported the government’s efforts to prioritize the public’s health and safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. But if abortion facilities were allowed to stay open during the pandemic, Christians should have been allowed to pray outside—especially since they were abiding by health and safety guidelines.
It seems the government didn’t like what these pro-life Christian witnesses had to say, so it used COVID-19 as an excuse to silence them. That’s why ADF filed a lawsuit on behalf of Love Life and its volunteers against Guilford County and the city of Greensboro.
The county “stay-at-home” order was supposed to apply to everyone equally. Instead, it was used to target people of faith. In fact, all arrests under the order were of pro-life advocates who were praying outside the abortion facility. No one else in the entire city of Greensboro was arrested. That kind of targeting is not allowed under the Constitution.
In October 2021, Guilford County settled the claims against it and agreed to pay $15,000 toward the Love Life volunteers’ legal fees. The county admitted pro-life speech on public sidewalks was protected by the First Amendment, and it vowed to uphold that protection in any future COVID-19 orders.
A year later, the city of Greensboro agreed to a settlement in which it admitted it had punished the pro-life advocates for their “exercise of constitutionally protected First Amendment rights.” Greensboro promised to affirm these First Amendment rights in any future orders relating to public-health emergencies like COVID-19.
Since the city admitted it had acted wrongly and guaranteed First Amendment protections in the future, the pro-life advocates agreed not to seek damages.
- April 2020: ADF sent a letter to the city of Greensboro explaining that the Love Life volunteers had acted in compliance with the county proclamation related to the COVID-19 crisis. But the government doubled down, redefining what qualified as acceptable “outdoor activities” in its proclamation and excluding the actions of these pro-life Christian witnesses. A couple of weeks later, ADF filed a lawsuit against the city of Greensboro and Guilford County.
- October 2021: Guilford County settled the claims against it, agreeing to pay $15,000 toward the pro-life advocates’ legal fees. It also agreed to protect citizens’ First Amendment rights if further COVID-19 proclamations are issued.
- March 2022: In the lawsuit against the city of Greensboro, the court allowed ADF's free speech, expressive association, and unlawful arrest claims to proceed.
- October 2022: The city of Greensboro agreed to a settlement in which it admitted to targeting Love Life volunteers for their “exercise of constitutionally protected First Amendment rights.” The city agreed that the First Amendment protects the right to engage in pro-life speech on public sidewalks, and it promised to uphold these rights in any future order related to a public-health crisis.
The bottom line
The arrest of the Love Life volunteers wasn’t about public health and safety; it was about the government silencing speakers just because it doesn’t like what they have to say. Even during a global pandemic, violating the First Amendment is not an option.
Love Life founder Justin Reeder appears on EWTN: