Va. wedding venue loses suit against governor
Franklin County business sought to raise state-imposed attendance limits
On Friday, a federal judge ruled against Franklin County wedding venue Belle Garden Estate and its owner Charles Russell, who sued Gov. Ralph Northam in an attempt to expand the number of people who could attend a wedding under the state’s COVID-19 restrictions.
Under current executive orders, businesses can host only 25 people outdoors if it’s a private booking, or 10 people indoors. Northam announced this week that the restrictions on weddings would be loosened April 1 to allow 100 people outdoors and 50 indoors, but Belle Garden Estate and Russell still pursued the suit, which sought to allow wedding venues to operate at 30% capacity, up to 1,000 people outdoors or 250 indoors, as allowed at baseball stadiums and other entertainment venues. With the April 1 policy changes, those caps will rise to up to 5,000 attendance in outdoor venues and 1,000 indoors.
Northam has said that weddings are riskier than other kinds of gatherings because of family members and friends hugging and dancing. On Tuesday, the governor said he will revisit lifting other restrictions on a monthly basis, as long as COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue to decline. He re-emphasized that outdoor wedding venues will continue to be limited to 100 attendees for the time being.
Judge Thomas T. Cullen of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Virginia, ruled against a preliminary injunction, saying in his order that the governor is likely immune from a civil suit and that the wedding venue has not demonstrated a viable First Amendment claim or equal protection claim. Cullen also said that Belle Garden did not show “irreparable injury” to the business due to monetary losses. In terms of public health impact, the judge wrote, “If the court issues a preliminary injunction in this case, there is a reasonable likelihood that more people will become infected and/or die than if it does not.”
Tim Anderson, a Virginia Beach attorney who has represented other clients seeking injunctions against the governor’s executive orders, said in a statement that although the ruling was disappointing for his client, “Belle Garden Estate believes this suit helped move the needle in how wedding venues are being unfairly treated by the governor of Virginia.” He added that Russell will take the weekend to review the order and decide whether he wants to appeal to the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
“Belle Garden fervently believes that allowing a concert venue to be capped at 30% occupancy and outdoor graduations to have as many as 5,000 attendees but restricting an outdoor wedding venue to 100 is a violation of the equal protection clause,” Anderson added. “Such restrictions serve no legitimate public interest and only prejudices the $8 billion wedding industry in Virginia, which has suffered tremendously with the COVID lockdowns.”