Federal judge ordered some of Gov. Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions unconstitutional

Limiting gatherings, closing businesses and ordering people to stay at home are unconstitutional under the First and Fourteenth Amendments, Judge William Stickman ruled.

Students sit outside of Charles Library on Sept. 6. | COLLEEN CLAGGETT / THE TEMPLE NEWS

Updated on Sept. 15 at 2:25 p.m.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s COVID-19 restrictions on gatherings are unconstitutional under the United States First Amendment, U.S. District Judge William Stickman ruled in an opinion released Monday. 

Stickman agreed with Butler, Fayette, Greene and Washington counties, which filed their complaint against the governor in May, that indoor and outdoor gathering limits violate the First Amendment. Stickman also ruled the stay-at-home and business closure orders Wolf issued in March violated the Due Process and Equal Protection clauses of the U.S. Fourteenth Amendment.

“In an emergency, even a vigilant public may let down its guard over its constitutional liberties, only to find that liberties, once relinquished, are hard to recoup and restriction – while expedient in the face of an emergency situation – may persist long after immediate danger has passed,” Stickman wrote in his ruling. 

When Pennsylvania moved into the green phase of reopening on July 3, the state limited indoor gatherings to 25 people and outdoor gatherings to 250 people, according to the state’s website. Philadelphia currently restricts outdoor gatherings to no more than 50 people.

Wolf and his administration are reviewing the ruling to understand how it will affect Philadelphia and Pennsylvania’s restrictions, wrote Maggi Mumma, a spokesperson for the Pennsylvania Department of Health, in an email to The Temple News. 

In a prepared statement, Gov. Wolf said Tuesday the ruling will be appealed, adding that Pennsylvania’s “early and decisive action” at the beginning of the pandemic saved lives.

“While the federal government dithered, Pennsylvania took action,” Wolf said. “I believe the vast majority of Pennsylvanians understand what we had to do in the beginning was necessary to keep people safe before we had the resources to reopen safely.”

Temple University will discuss with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health the implications of the ruling on the university, which released its own guidance on students gathering two weeks ago, wrote Ray Betzner, a spokesperson for the university, in an email to The Temple News.

The court’s decision will not change any of the orders or regulations in Philadelphia, wrote Mike Dunn, a spokesperson for the City, in an email to The Temple News. 

“Today’s ruling has absolutely no bearing on any orders, which have been effective in lowering the number of new cases of COVID-19 in Philadelphia to levels not seen since March,” Dunn wrote.

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