Outdoor wedding venue Belle Garden Estate (BGE) appeared in court Wednesday in a lawsuit against Governor Ralph Northam. BGE’s lawyer Tim Anderson argued that Northam’s executive orders violate the establishment clause of the First Amendment, since religious weddings have no capacity limits, but secular weddings are capped by executive order. Northam’s lawyer argued that the right to have a wedding is not infringed, just the capacity allowed at a wedding. BGE sought an injunction blocking enforcement of executive orders that limit wedding venues differently from other businesses.
“We have a situation in Virginia, today, right now, that my client can have a religious wedding on his property with no capacity limits so long as they are separated by six feet,” Anderson said in the hearing. “That’s what religious ceremonies are allowed to do. But someone who has a non-religious wedding is now capped as of yesterday, starting on April 1, to 100 people. And that triggers the establishment clause.”
On Tuesday Northam announced a loosening of restrictions effective April 1. The new restrictions allow up to 50 people at indoor social gatherings and 1oo people at outdoor social gatherings, but there are different rules for sporting events, graduations, and entertainment venues. Outdoor entertainment venues must operate at 30 percent capacity. But secular weddings fall under the social gathering restrictions.
Northam’s attorney said that weddings aren’t banned — just large weddings or large receptions, following guidance from state health officials. The attorney suggested that people at weddings are more likely to disregard safe COVID-19 practices. “It’s all about the behaviors that folks behave in when they are with individuals that they know closely as well,” the attorney said.
The judge expects to issue an opinion by the end of the week.
On Wednesday afternoon, Senator Siobhan Dunnavant (R-Henrico) launched an online petition asking Northam to make the guidelines for weddings the same as they are for other events.
“Happily Ever After Should Start in Virginia NOW,” the petition states.
“We had a lot of couples that delayed their weddings last year, and other couples that were already planning to get married this year that are trying to celebrate those events. They’ve put them off, they’ve made investments,” Dunnavant told The Virginia Star.
She said that schools are re-opening and Northam has allowed graduations thanks to grassroots pressure. Dunnvant created a previous petition asking Northam to allow expanded capacity at graduations that got over 5,000 signatures. Shortly after that, Northam did announce expanded capacity guidelines for graduations. Dunnavant is hoping for similar results with the wedding petition.
“What is the difference between a wedding and an entertainment event at a regulated venue? There isn’t any,” she said. “In fact, if you really want to choose the event that’s going to be more likely regulated, it will be the wedding.”
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