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Movie Theater Chains Sue New Jersey for ‘Unconstitutional’ Closures Due to Coronavirus

Lawsuit joined by AMC, Cinemark and Regal questions why indoor churches, libraries and museums can reopen while theaters stay shuttered

Major theater chains including AMC, Regal, Cinemark BJK Entertainment and Bow Tie Cinemas have sued the state of New Jersey, claiming it’s unconstitutional for movie theaters to remain closed while other indoor businesses and venues can reopen in the state.

The lawsuit, obtained by TheWrap, is led by the National Association of Theater Owners and NATO New Jersey, and it names New Jersey Governor Philip Murphy and the acting commissioner of health Judith Perischilli as defendants. The suit argues the defendants are violating the theater chains’ first amendment rights and taking property without just compensation.

“COVID-19 represents a serious public health risk, and Plaintiffs support fair and reasonable actions by the government to address that risk,” the lawsuit reads. “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.”

The theater chains say in the lawsuit that movie theaters are part of Stage 3 of New Jersey’s reopening, which has not been given a timeline for reopening and specified that “indoor entertainment businesses,” including movie theaters and arcades, must remain closed. But the lawsuit then says that churches and other indoor venues like museums, aquariums, libraries and public and private social clubs have been able to reopen by the end of June through an executive order.

“Defendants have a legal obligation to promulgate orders that treat like entities in a like manner, and not to create arbitrary or irrational distinctions, particularly where First Amendment rights are at stake. Although Defendants have issued orders allowing other public assemblies such as religious services and ceremonies to open, they have withheld approval for movie theatres, which are similarly situated, if not less of a risk, from a public health perspective,” the lawsuit reads.

It adds that theater chains have presented their safety protocols to the governor and are ready and willing to implement them, but the defendants “have provided no explanation for their disparate treatment of entities with similar risk levels regarding COVID-19, and none exists.”

The lawsuit is being handled by First Amendment lawyers at Davis Wright Tremaine.

Pamela Chelin contributed to this report.