Movie theater chains sue New Jersey for 'unconstitutional and unlawful distinctions' in reopening

Movie theater chains sue New Jersey for 'unconstitutional and unlawful distinctions' in reopening
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A group of movie theater chains is suing New Jersey over the state’s coronavirus pandemic restrictions, alleging that the continued closure of cinemas even as churches and other indoor venues reopen is a constitutional violation.

The challengers in a lawsuit filed Monday, which include industry giants as well as smaller chains, say the nearly four-month shutdown has led to a significant loss of profits, layoffs and, with no clear timeline for reopening movie houses, a violation of theater operators’ First Amendment rights.

“In addition to financial loss, defendants’ continued orders keeping movie theatres closed infringe significantly on plaintiffs’ rights of free speech and expression,” the theaters told a federal trial court.

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The film industry has been hit particularly hard during the pandemic, with theaters shuttering around the world as millions of cases of coronavirus have been recorded. According to some estimates, box office sales could lose $5 billion globally due to the health crisis, and 1 in 5 American movie theaters could permanently close.

New Jersey’s Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy shut down nonessential businesses, including movie theaters, in mid-March. Since then, the Garden State has entered a phased reopening, under which indoor religious gatherings and some commercial activities have resumed.

But the plan provides no hard timeline for reopening for cinemas and other “limited entertainment” options. The theater owners say such uneven treatment violates their due process rights and amounts to an unlawful government deprivation of private property and income.

Murphy is one of the named defendants in the lawsuit, along with New Jersey’s top public health official. The state’s attorney general’s office declined to comment.

In an interesting legal twist, the theaters’ lawsuit rests on the argument that still-closed movie houses are receiving disparate treatment compared to reopened houses of worship.

This represents a kind of mirror image of some of the higher-profile pandemic-era lawsuits in which faith groups claimed to have been treated unfairly compared to businesses.

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It may also be an indication that the theater industry has taken a cue from conservative Christians, who have loudly pressed for religious liberty amid public health restrictions.

In April, Murphy faced criticism from conservatives for his decision to require strict social-distancing guidelines for the state's churches and other houses of worship.

During a tense interview with Tucker CarlsonTucker CarlsonTucker Carlson calls Fauci a 'fraud' after tense hearing Tucker Carlson calls Obama 'one of the sleaziest and most dishonest figures' in US political history Don't count out Duckworth in Biden VP race MORE on Fox News, Murphy was asked about constitutional protections after police broke up a rabbi's funeral in early April at a synagogue in Ocean County, arresting 15 men.

"That's above my pay grade, Tucker," Murphy replied. "I wasn't thinking of the Bill of Rights when we did this."

Murphy’s interview was panned by religious leaders. Gary Bauer, a U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom commissioner appointed by President TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrat calls on White House to withdraw ambassador to Belarus nominee TikTok collected data from mobile devices to track Android users: report Peterson wins Minnesota House primary in crucial swing district MORE, said the exchange made him “cringe."

Additionally, the Department of Justice has submitted court filings and sent letters supporting reopening efforts by religious groups.

The cinemas argue that the reopening of churches cuts in their favor because movie theaters are seen as either equally safe or even less risky than houses of worship, according to federal guidelines and academic studies.

“Other public health experts have similarly rated places of worship as more risky than movie theatres, highlighting the increased risks posed by singing in places of worship,” the suit alleges.

“Unlike attendees at places of worship,” it continues, “movie theatre guests generally do not engage with those outside their immediate groups to have conversations, hold or shake hands, hug, sing, provide verbal responses, do responsive readings, or engage in other forms of contact regularly engaged in at places of worship.”