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Three New Hampshirites are suing Governor Chris Sununu, arguing that a ban on gatherings larger than 50 people is “violating their constitutional rights.” Sununu’s ban on gatherings was to limit the amount of people who take part in social, spiritual, and recreational activities, in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
It is akin to measures put in place across North America, and around the world. Although the ban is not unusual, and California, Illinois and New York are under shelter-in-place orders, the arguement of the suit is that autonomy of each individual has been largely ignored for the sake of the collective.
David Binford, Eric Couture and Holly Rae Beene filed suit asking a Merrimack County Superior Court judge to issue an injunction on the ban. Binford, a former Republican state legislator from Bath, stated that he intended to attend a number of political events in the coming weeks in Grafton County. Couture attends services three times a week at Bible Baptist Church in Nashua, and teaches Sunday school.
The plaintiffs made it clear that the government and those in it are legally able to make suggestions on how citizens should behave at any given time, but they are not legally permitted to impose their will on the people without due process. “Anyone can choose to exercise their God-given unalienable rights,” Couture said. “We can choose not to assemble if that is our desire. What cannot occur is one man in a position of power deciding to strip us of our rights in the name of safety and without due process.”
A spokesman for Sununu said Thursday that the emergency ban is consistent with the rest of the nation and is well within the governor’s rights.
Dan Hynes, the lawyer defending the plaintiffs, said “of course we do not wish the spread of COVID-19,” but that “the government should not be acting in an unconstitutional manner in order to possibly address their concerns.” Every state in the country, thus far, has been left unchallenged concerning the legalities of policies motivated by the pandemic.
The suit holds that the ban clearly violates the “state Constitution’s protection of the right to assembly and the right of free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.”
“If the governor has unilateral authority to declare anything an emergency, and take action to effectively revoke constitutional rights, we no longer live in a constitutional republic,” Hynes said. The court will have to determine whether suppression of individual rights can be subsumed by emergency powers to deal with “national emergencies” or if citizens rights supercede those powers.