Judge hears private company challenge against DeSantis ban on Covid passports


A Leon County circuit judge is due to hold a hearing Thursday in a Sarasota hobby and craft store challenge against a state law that bans so-called “vaccine passports.”

Circuit Judge Layne Smith examines the case two months after a South Florida federal judge sided with Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings in a challenge to the law, which seeks to prevent companies from demanding of clients that they present proof of vaccination against covid-19 and threat of fines for the infractions.

Sarasota-based company Bead Abode, Inc., claims the law violates the First Amendment and seeks an injunction to block it. The First Amendment arguments echo the reasoning of U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams, who issued a preliminary injunction in August in the Norwegian case.

Bead Abode said in the lawsuit, filed on September 10, that many of his clients are retirees and some have health issues. It said it closed in March 2020 due to the pandemic, offering only online sales and courses, but made a plan to reopen this year as vaccinations became available and the number of cases. seemed to decrease.

“In the absence of the measure sought to prohibit the defendant (the State) from applying this clearly unconstitutional restriction based on content on protected speech, Bead Abode would be forced to choose between its commitment to the safety of its clients and crushing penalties for enforcing this law, ”company attorney Andrew Boyer wrote in the lawsuit.

But the state, which appealed the federal court ruling, argues Smith should dismiss the injunction request. He disputes that the law, which the legislature passed in April, violates the rights of the First Amendment.

In a court document filed last week, attorneys for Attorney General Ashley Moody’s office wrote that the law “only restricts driving, not speaking, and therefore does not involve the First Amendment.”

“In other words, the provision leaves owners and clients free to have discussions of their own choosing, but ultimately requires owners to serve clients regardless of their vaccination document,” the lawyers wrote. ‘State. “An owner who asks a client if they are vaccinated (and even asks if the client can provide proof) is acting in accordance with the law; a violation only occurs when the customer responds in the negative and the owner, in turn, refuses to provide services. In this way, the law only regulates conduct – the provision of services by a business – not speaking. “

Gov. Ron DeSantis made the ban on vaccinated passports a priority, issuing an executive order in April that was followed by the legislature enshrining a ban into state law.

Williams’ August decision only applied to Norwegian. There she writes that the law is a “content-based restriction” on speaking because it targets documentation but allows companies to request further information from customers on issues such as vaccinations.

“Although companies cannot require customers to verify their immunization status with ‘documentation’, the law does not prohibit companies from verifying immunization status in any other way (for example orally),” Williams wrote. “As a result, under (the law), companies could still ‘discriminate’ against unvaccinated people by adopting a vaccination requirement, which they could enforce by requiring an oral verification of vaccination status before entry or discouraging unvaccinated clients from entering by placing signs that read “clients only vaccinated” and “unvaccinated clients are not allowed”.

But in a brief filed Monday with the 11th U.S. Court of Appeals in the Norwegian case, lawyers for the DeSantis administration said the law is “economic regulation that does not involve” the First Amendment. .

“The law simply prohibits companies from conditioning service to customers providing documents certifying vaccination against COVID-19,” the brief said. “Norwegian can always request this documentation from its customers, its customers can provide it voluntarily, and both parties are free to discuss the matter. What Norwegian cannot do is refuse service to customers who do not provide this documentation. “

–Jim Saunders, Florida Information Service

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