Theater Group Sues New Jersey to Re-Open Screens

The National Association of Theatre Owners (NATO), including AMC Theatres, Cinemark and Regal Cinemas, has filed a lawsuit against New Jersey Gov. Philip Murphy and Judith Persichilli, acting commissioner of health of New Jersey, for their legal mandates keeping movie theaters shuttered due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The suit, filed July 6 in U.S. District Court for the Court of New Jersey, alleges the state and Murphy are acting “unconstitutional and unlawful” by allowing certain businesses and places of public assembly to reopen, while requiring movie theatres to remain closed.

“COVID-19 represents a serious public health risk, and plaintiffs support fair and reasonable actions by the government to address that risk,” read the complaint. “However, the government-mandated total closure of movie theatres is neither fair nor reasonable, and is instead a violation of plaintiffs’ First Amendment rights of freedom of speech and freedom of expression, equal protection of the laws, due process under the law, and is a ‘taking of property’ without just compensation.”

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NATO contends movie theaters have been unfairly shutout of the government-mandated business re-openings, which include churches, museums and libraries, which are allowed no more than 100 people or 25% of capacity.

“Shopping can be done outdoors or virtually … [but] shopping malls have been allowed to reopen,” read the complaint.

NATO claims there is no “rational basis” for the distinction Gov. Murphy has drawn between places of worship and movie theaters, both places of public assembly.

“In fact, many churches lacking a building of their own, or lacking the capability to safely host religious services during this period, hold their religious services in movie theatres,” NATO said.

The trade group said operators nationwide are spending millions of dollars incorporating sanitization protocols, ticketless admissions, no-contact concessions and air purifiers for planned re-opening by the end of the month. New Jersey is one of the few states that has not yet allowed theaters to re-open.

The suit seeks unspecified financial damages (besides legal fees), asking that NATO’s members be treated in the same manner as comparable entities under the governor’s orders, and be permitted to reopen as other comparable places of public assembly have been allowed to.

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