GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Is a wedding and reception a religious service that should be exempt from the governor’s executive order limiting gatherings?
That’s the question to be decided in a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of a young Byron Center couple and the Holland venue where the wedding was planned for Friday.
For a century, the Baker Furniture Warehouse, 217 E. 24th St. in Holland, warehoused the products of the premier furniture manufacturer. Now it is a venue for receptions and parties known as the Baker Group.
Now, according to a federal lawsuit, sometimes it’s a de facto church.
Kiley Stuller and David Van Solkema have been planning their wedding since May — they are registered at Bed Bath & Beyond and Target. They planned to have their ceremony and reception at the East 24th Street venue.
But their plans ran afoul of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s executive order limiting indoor gatherings to 10 and outdoor gatherings to 100.
After trying to convince Ottawa County’s health department to allow the ceremony, they received a cease and desist order instead.
“A wedding is sacred, it doesn’t matter the particular venue of the wedding,” said Robert Muise, who runs the controversial Ann Arbor-based American Freedom Law Center
The lawsuit argues that because the executive order has not been enforced against worship services, both the wedding and the reception should be allowed at the Holland venue.
“Christians believe it is not just the wedding but the wedding feast itself that is very much part of the religious worship. Christ performed his first miracle at the wedding feast of Cana where he changed water into wine for the guests,” Muise said. “Christians believe that where two or more gather in Christ’s name, Christ is present,”
The county sees things differently.
“If at Notre Dame, my alma mater, they opened with a prayer, according to these plaintiffs, they could hold maybe 3,000 viewers in Notre Dame Stadium,” said Ottawa County corporate counsel Doug Van Essen.
Van Essen said the governor has decided not to enforce the executive order against organized worship services but not other events.
“Just because there are religious overtones to funeral and a wedding – which there certainly are – doesn’t mean anyone is exempt, including churches and restaurants, from the limitation,” he said.
Van Essen said there is a difference between a wedding and a restaurant because it is an hours-long event where people interact in much different ways than at a restaurant where groups of two to five people sit together separated from everyone else.
Muise said the wedding is presided over by a minister and is clearly an act of worship.
“What about all these protests that went on with hundreds and hundreds with the governor standing arm-in-arm not social distancing, not wearing masks,” Muise said, adding that his clients repeatedly tried to get permission and the lawsuit was a last resort.
The lawsuit is against the governor, state Attorney General Dana Nessel and Ottawa County.
The governor’s office declined to comment on pending legislation.
Muise would not make his clients available for an interview.
Muise’s law center has filed dozens of suits on behalf of conservative causes, many of which are thrown out before they make it before a judge or jury.
The Southern Poverty Law Center lists the law firm as a group due to their aggressive advocacy and lawsuits supporting what the center says were anti-Islamic causes.
Muise bristled when he was asked about whether his clients are aware of the center’s status.
“Quite frankly, it’s a rather offensive question from you,” Muse said Tuesday.
He went on to say the Southern Poverty Law Center does not like Christians and wants to silence him. He talked about his Catholicism, his 12 children, his service as a Marine and then left the Zoom conference.
“We’re done, thank you,” he said before signing off.
On Tuesday, Muise filed a preliminary injunction and restraining order asking the court to allow the wedding on Friday.
A hearing for that request is tentatively scheduled for Thursday.